Temples of Angkor in Cambodia

On an hour’s sleep, we left Saigon after one last all-niter with friends. A lesson learned though; before attempting to cross borders in any country, be sure to prepare yourself with cash and all necessary documents. Luckily we had some leftover Thai baht to pay the guards for our visa entry. At one point the bus left us sans luggage and as we came through the fourth layer of customs, we thought we could catch them on a motorbike. Getting more and more accustomed to the rules of the road, Erin said “this would happen to us.” Sensing our urgency, the driver barreled down the road, but our bus was nowhere to be found. Finally, we retreated back to the border where we noticed it parked at a nearby restaurant. After a 30 minute chase, our driver definitely earned his $1. Welcome to Cambodia.

The first stop the bus made in Cambodia, I got the sense of the extreme level of poverty here. The scars of the Khmer Rouge and American bombings are very evident as you see many people with missing limbs.  To this day, traveler’s are advised to stay on marked paths in Cambodia because every year, many die or are severely injured from unexploded mines.  Some locals take on the dangerous task of locating and defusing the mines because the scrap metal will pay them ten times their weekly wages.  Unfortunately, this dangerous job leaves many children fatherless and in many cases, limbless.   Unlike other places, the children here do most of the begging. It’s heartbreaking to see how many malnourished kids are on the streets tugging at the base of your shirt and then pointing to their mouths. And, to add to the difficulty of witnessing this, they are hands down the best looking children I have ever laid eyes on, and would become a focal point for Erin and I while visiting the temples of Angkor.

Zach and Shelby recommended a hotel for us called Prince Mekong Villa which is notorious for providing their guests with bicycles to tour the ancient sites. Since it was supposed to top 110 degrees on our first day, and we were still recovering from what those hooligans in Vietnam made us drink, we elected to take a driver and ended up biking the second. Having only two days, we needed to cram in as much sight seeing as possible.  The driver purported himself to be a guide but once arriving at the first temple, we realized he was nothing more than a tuk tuk driver and wouldn’t be escorting us into the sites.

All of the temples are truly magnificent.  With combined influences from both Hinduism and Buddhism, the architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen as the attention to detail is so fine, each block laid has carvings and symbols.  Imagine building your home and each brick laid was custom-made and completely unique to the brick next to it.  Pretty impressive.

The food in Cambodia could be described as a cross between Thai and Vietnamese.  A restaurant we tried on the first night served us a noodle soup covered in a green curry sauce called Khmer Curry.  It was served cold and was pretty awful.

We decided to wake early the next day and ride our bicycles to Phnom Bakheng, a temple located on top of a hill, for the sunrise.  Great decision.  In the distance we could see nearby Angkor Wat jutting upwards from the surrounding trees.  A local man was meditating, and monks soon arrived as Erin and I did some light exercise, stretched, and listened to some music while relaxing.  By 6 a.m. we knew that the day was going to be extremely hot an it ended up being over 115 degrees.  We each must’ve drank about a gallon and a half of water and each only peed once!

Riding the bicycles around was great fun and thanks to the owner at Prince Mekong Villa, our route was planned for us and was completely off the beaten track, perfect for how we like to sight see.  By noon, we head back to town, checked our emails, and then had some pizza at infamous Happy Herb Pizza before pedaling back to Angkor Wat for the sunset.  About 10 minutes away from our destination, it began to drizzle, revealing a beautiful rainbow perfectly timed for our arrival at the main attraction.  The sky really opened up and by the time we ran to the front entrance, our smiles stretched ear to ear as we were both completely soaked, a much needed reprieve from the sweltering heat.

For our pictures of Cambodia, click here 

The bus ride back to Bangkok was interesting as well because I was able to sit next to a monk and have my very own “monk chat.”  I asked him every question I could think of concerning Buddhism.  I learned that he was in the branch of Buddhism that requires monk’s to remain celibate.  You notice that the monks in this branch never touch woman, even when exchanging money, and when seated on a bus or train, only men are allowed to sit next to them.  I asked him about this and he replied “it is only to remove the temptation.”  Erin had to turn around on the bus and stop me in my tracks when I began inquiring, since he can’t have sex, if monks can masturbate.  I believe it’s a valid question but even after making hand gestures he didn’t understand what I meant.  Buddhist’s do not believe in a God, they believe in the mind, theirs and yours, and live their life peacefully.  Many times during our conversation he mentioned that Buddhists have never been involved in a war or any armed conflict.  After our discussion I began to understand why Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the West. 

Our last night in Southeast Asia was spent in Bangkok with Travis.  He showed us the local feel as we cruised around his neighborhood trying the roadside porridge for breakfast and a seafood pizza for dinner.  Travis introduced us to our new favorite fruit, Mangosteen.  His hospitality made the end of our trip here so smooth that we almost considered extending our stay just to chill with him a bit longer.  We couldn’t pull the trigger though and were off to India the next morning. 

 

Learning from Cambodia's Past and Present

Above: Angkor Wat at sunset after a rain.

Stopping for three days in Cambodia, the goal was to see as much as possible of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. These were built in the 1100s for King Suryavarman II and were a huge part of the strong Cambodian civilization. Later, more structures were added for King Suryavarman VI, making quite a village. The intricate, rock-carved structures were forgotten during Cambodia’s tough times, including invasions by Chams (now Vietnam) in the late 1100s, the US War on Vietnam (and surrounding areas including Cambodia) and the Khmer Rouge.

The ruins today make Roman ruins look like a chintzy prize as they tower, looking half their age, into the clouds. Some of the temples and buildings are accessible by steps so narrow that my foot’s sideways placement is still too big. To get to the peaks of many of the monuments, you must use hands and toes to hoist your body monkey-style atop the carved stones.

Above: Ruins of Siam Reap and a monk looking out from the top of a temple at sunrise.

As you can tell by the photos under the “Photos” tab, the children among temple ruins, near bus stops and playing on the streets were some of my favorite parts of Cambodia. Although they are poor and selling trinkets for a few cents, they are lively and sweet and deserve so much more of an opportunity. One eight-year-old boy could speak 5 different languages, yet is selling postcards to foreigners to support his family. It seems a common accessory for every woman is a child, simply perched on her hip or hanging onto her body as she pedals a bicycle.

Above: A girl sells souvenirs among the ruins.

Missing limbs and crippled body parts on children and adults are common in Cambodia because people still step on land mines planted here over 20 years ago by the US and its allies and then by the Khmer Rouge soon after. Over 40,000 Cambodians have suffered from limb amputations due to mines since the end of their war in 1979, making it the worst reminder of their war-filled past.

Although they have been through the worst, the Khmer people are animated, have excellent cooking skills (see the recipes section for Khmer food) and would give their lives for friends or family. Many people are up before the sun rises (I know, because so was I!) and are setting up their sales carts beside the road for their daily job. Also, out of all of the countries visited in Southeast Asia, the Cambodians speak the best English.

Above: A vendor sits outside temple ruins with food shortly after sunrise.

The short trip was a lesson on the after-effects of war, the historical value of once-forgotten artifacts, and finding happiness with the things around you.