Angkor Wat, Cambodia

5 04 2010

Before going to Cambodia, I knew very little about Khmer culture or history except that the Cambodians survived a huge civil war from the 1970’s but I was unfamiliar with the degree of how horrific the civil war really was. I was familiar with Angkor Wat and I was keen to see one of the seven man made travel wonders of the world. But before I begin to explain my trip to Cambodia, I think a brief history lesson is in line for those of us who are unfamiliar with Cambodian history.

In the early 1860’s Cambodia was under a series of wars and battles between Vietnam and Thailand thus Cambodia was in danger of losing its sovereignty so they sought the help of the French for protection. Although the French did “protect” Cambodia’s sovereignty and borders, it did not leave much of a colonial impact as one would think. The French were far more interested in Vietnam as an economic engine than Cambodia and even as WW2 came to an end, there were still no universities in Cambodia! (As a University student this is outrageous!)

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Eventually Cambodia gained independence in 1953 but happiness in Cambodia was short lived. In the 1960’s Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam War with the USA. Apparently the US began secretly carpet bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia. In 1970, a military coup overtook the Cambodian government and American and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in order to root out communist forces. Unfortunately they failed and the country was plagued with fighting. Eventually Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 (Cambodian communist party).

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge controlled every aspect of Cambodian life. People from big cities like Phonm Penh were driven out of their homes, money was abolished and Cambodia became a peasant dominated communist country. The Khmer Rouge killed and tortured those who were doctors, nurses, teachers, former government officials, the disabled (and even people who wore glasses) — basically anyone with an education was killed because the Khmer Rouge feared that the educated would try to lead a rebellion. All technology (even watches) were destroyed and the Khmer Rouge tried to remove all “Western” influence in order to go back to what they called — true “Khmer life”. By 1979, more than two million people died as a result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge who rationed all the food (often resulting in malnutrition and starvation) and/or were killed by Pol Pot’s soliders. Eventually in 1978, Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge but they still led a guerilla war through the 1980’s (which was primarily financed by China and Thailand) against the Vietnamese.

View from one of the towers at Angkor Wat

OK — so the history lesson is over but that was interesting wasn’t it? It is so sad and unfortunate that the Western world knows so little about the genocide in Cambodia. Nevertheless, I will stop talking about Cambodian politics and history and focus more on my experience there. When I arrived at the Siem Reap, it was just a big open piece of land with a medium sized building in the middle as the airport — unlike the huge airports we are use to seeing like Lester B. Pearson and London Heathrow. We arrived at Siem Reap at 7 AM and we were extremely tired and groggy from having been up most of the night. The guesthouse we were staying at, Golden Temple Villa, had agreed to do a free airport pick up for us. We were greeted by a young tuk-tuk driver who held a sign with my name on it. He said hello, asked how we were and took us on our way to the hostel. After we checked in to our room at noon, we were further notified that all new guests could receive 20 minute complimentary Khmer massages all one hour massages were only $3 USD!

Angkor Wat -- hot air balloon in the background

On our first day we actually took a Khmer cooking class since we wanted to do something low-key and start checking out temples the next day. We went to Le Tigre de Papier which is a Khmer restaurant run by a number of women and our cooking teacher, Sopia taught us to make prawn salad, Khmer curry, spring rolls, Amok curry and mango sticky rice with jack fruit! The mango sticky rice with jackfruit was my favourite dish and all weekend I craved it! (Most of us from the Western world have probably never had jackfruit but it is the BEST fruit ever! If you are ever in Asia, make sure to try it!) After our cooking class, we went back to the hostel for a siesta and in the evening we checked out the night market and Pub Street.

mango sticky rice with jackfruit

On our second day we visited Angkor Wat,  Angkor Thom, Victory Gate, Thommanom, Chau Say Thevoda, Ta Keo, Ta Prom, Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang and Prasat Kravan. Angkor Wat surprisingly wasn’t my favourite temple. Although it is huge in size and absolutely incredible in terms of architecture and design, the fact that it was so touristy didn’t make it my favourite. I absolutely loved the Bayon at Angkor Thom, this is the temple where there are apparently over 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara carved in to the stone. I also really enjoyed Ta Prohm, this is where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. Ta Prohm was built in the 12th century and the entire complex is full of massive trees with roots that look like they are strangling the stone.  I could probably sit here and give you some detailed information on each temple but that would probably bore you so I will only discuss my top favourites 🙂

Bayon at Angkor Thom

On our third day we visited Banteay Srei, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Preah Khan and the North Gate of Angkor Thom. Banteay Srei was my favourite temple on this tour — although it was not impressive in terms of size, it is absolutely incredible in terms of the elaborate carvings that surround the doors and hall ways and the pink sandstone that it is made of. While we were going from temple to temple, we were usually bombarded with small kids trying to sell us trinkets, bracelets or postcards. It was really sad to see but it is a harsh reality for many of the kids in Cambodia. One particularly interesting story that I would like to share is about a little boy who stopped us as we were abotu to get out of our tuk-tuk. The boy spoke extremely good English (much to our surprise) and he asked us where we were from. My friend replied saying we were from Canada. The boy then asked if we had any spare Canadian change so my friend reached into his wallet to see if he had any quarters but he only had Singaporean change. So he handed the boy a Singaporean 20 cent coin. The boy then took out two Canadian quarters and asked us if this was Canadian money and when we confirmed with him that it was, he asked if we could give him $1 USD in exchange for the 50 cents Canadian. Immediately we understood what he was trying to do. This little boy would collect spare change from foreigners and then ask foreigners to give him USD in exchange for the change (since Cambodia prefers to take USD because $1 USD = 4000 Cambodian Riel which can go a LONG way in Cambodia). We were extremely surprised by how clever this little boy actually was.

Banteay Srei

On our last day in Cambodia we went to Kampong Pluk which is a floating village communtiy approximately 1 hour outside of Siem Reap. Although there was not much to see except houses built on stilts, it was a hard reality to see that this is life for majority of the Cambodian population. All of the houses were made from sticks and hay and they rose many metres above the ground (due to the heavy rain fall). Kampong Pluk truly depicted a peasant lifestyle in rural Cambodia.

Kampong Pluk

Despite having survived a mass genocide, years of war and famine, Cambodians possess such an incredible amount of optimism that you can’t leave Cambodia without having an enormous amount of respect and affection for these people.
Thus far, I would have to say Cambodia was just an incredible experience. All of the temples only make a sliver of what makes Cambodia so special. It is honestly, the culture and the people that will leave a lasting impression.

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