Lessons in SE Asian History
Trip Start Mar 21, 2012
24Trip End Mar 25, 2013
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Family reunited and acclimatizing to the heat from the Blue Lime hotel pool
Uncle Rob currently lives in Phnom Penh and works at an international school; Lindsey and Ben crashed at his place (huge ups!) and Sally and Emily based themselves at the Kabiki which is directly across the road!
Rob is a gentle man who draws near all creatures... :)
We were immediately impressed by Cambodian people and customs, which came as a pleasant surprise. According to locals, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam were all once a part of the same kingdom during the Funan and Chenla eras from the first until about the 7th century, which would explain their similar cultures, beliefs and values we experienced with the Thais: laid-back, good-natured, and a strong ethos for saving face. However, we found the Cambodians to be a bit more assertive with us, more playful, and more service-oriented. For example, just about anyone would send off our passports to get our Vietnam visas--no need for us to visit a consulate--and with a quick turnaround. Or another example: tuk tuk drivers would happily wait around while you ate dinner to take you back, no additional charge. We found their English to be generally very good! (Note: Our experience with the Cambodian people was in strong contrast to many other friends and travelers we met, who warned us about an aggressive demeanor and incessant begging. We were fortunate not to share these experiences.)
Situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap, the mighty Mekong, and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh is a bustling city, its streets and sidewalks packed to the gills. The city is home to about 2.2 million of the country's roughly 15 million inhabitants, all of which seem to be constantly out and about. Traffic appears to be a chaotic mess upon first impressions--no one stops at intersections and hardly a soul pays heed to the rarely placed traffic lights. Streets no wider than neighborhood lanes crowd never ending clusters of cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and cyclists. But upon closer inspection, it somehow works. Everyone putters along at a lackadaisical snail's pace, which miraculously enables everyone to get to their destination without ever having to come to a complete stop along the way. And any accident--though we never actually witnessed one ourselves--would result in nothing more than a mild fender bender!
Phnom Penh wasn't always Cambodia's capital city. Until the late 14th century, Angkor was, near Siem Reap, about 350km to the West. Siem Reap, meaning "defeat of Thais," was named to remember the battle against the Thais; however, fighting in the area continued and after the kingdom of Angkor Thom (just a couple km from Angkor Wat) was captured and destroyed by the Thais, Khmer king, Ponhea Yat, moved the Khmer capital to Phnom Penh to be further away and more protected from the Thais. Since this time, the capital city has moved several times until 1866 when King Norodom I returned the capital to Phnom Penh permanently.
Sally enjoying a cup of copy and a local paper in front of the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh
Sally enjoying a peaceful moment with some monks in a city wat
Angkor Wat and Surrounds
Present day, Angkor means "capital city," and it was just that for the Khmer Empire from early 12th century, under King Suryavarman II, until the late 14th century when the capital city moved to Phnom Penh, and flourished from approximately 9th century (under King Jayavarman II) until 15th century before being practically abandoned.
During this period, Angkor was built up amid forests and farmland, its rubble covering a sprawl of at least 1,000 square km (390 sq mi). Temple after temple was constructed, much with the assistance of elephants, for its rulers to build their power. With the number of temples estimating over one thousand, of which about 40 are regularly visited by tourists, we were overwhelmed with options and desperately needed someone to help us sort all the history and legends out.
Thanks to friends who traveled to Angkor before us, we received a recommendation and met our extremely helpful and knowledgeable private tour guide, Chantou.
Chantou met us the evening before visiting Angkor and explained what he recommended we see the following day and how everything would work. Most people visit Ankor Wat first, at sunrise, although it faces West and thus does not receive the beautiful lighting until the afternoon.(Historians concluded that Ankor Wat faced West because Suryavarman intended it to serve as his funerary temple as West is the direction of death.) And we were right there at sunrise with the masses!
Ben biking towards Angkor Wat at first light while us ladies and Chantou encouraged him from the comfort of our tuk tuk
Sunrise over Angkor Wat
The sunrise crowd
The crowds disappear moments after sunrise to go get breakfast back in Siem Reap!
Angkor Wat is said to be the world's largest single religious monument. We would believe it too! Each sandstone wall was intricately and masterfully carved with symbols and decorative elements, nearly all telling important Hindu or Buddhist legends. (The early temples of the Khmer Empire were Hindu temples but as Buddhism gently permeated the region at the end of the 12th century, Angkor became a center of Buddhist worship.)
Chantou sitting us down to tell us about one of the many Hindu legends which are retold in ornate carvings that line the corridors of Angkor Wat. We were currently learning the well-known legend of Ramayana. Tracing the events from the story through the carvings is a fun exercise but takes patience and concentration (i.e. do this in the morning while it's still cool and easy to concentrate!)
Ben hanging on Chantou's every word, carefully processing the wealth of information Chantou presented us
Chantou pointed out many of the intricate bas-reliefs, and even more intricate stories these reliefs told! This wall told the story of the churning of the ocean of milk.
A glimpse into the intricate bas-reliefs on the walls, the sandstone shiny from centuries of people touching it
In addition to the detailed legends, Chantou spotted for us many of the best photo opportunities:
Sally posing with the beautifully-costumed Khmer ladies. The one to her right resembles an Apsara, or beautiful lady (also known as a fairy).
The Kunz and Rummel family ascending the steep stairs to the upper tower in Ankor Wat
Some people clung on for dear life descending the steep steps, but our 75-yr old Aunt Emily had no problem!
The Kunz and Rummel team posing on rubbled sandstone blocks inside Ankor Wat
Lindsey and looking out from one of the windows in the uppermost tower at Ankor Wat. It's still morning, but it was already getting hot! (like in the 30's Celsius)
We were delighted by a local wedding on our way out of Ankor Wat
After three to four hours of walking the lengths of Ankor Wat and reliving the glory days, we continued on to an impressive expanse of walled temples, known as Ankor Thom. Its contents, nine square kilometers, were built under Jayavarman VII in the 13th century.
East Gate Angkor Thom
The sisters enjoy a comfortable ride in a tuk tuk around Ankor Thom
Meanwhile, Ben followed closely behind as we blasted around the Angkor complexes
Our first stop in Ta Phrom was the temple of Bayon, the center of Ankor Thom and Jayavarman's state temple.
Lindsey showing her love to one of the many faces carved in the stone at Bayon temple
How do SE Asians have such flexible hands?
A quick but relaxing lunch and then we were off again to see more temples!
Cruising around Ta Phrom
Our last temple visited that day was the rubbled ruins of Ta Phrom. Much of this temple is currently undergoing reconstruction. This is also the site where a few famous shots from the Tomb Raider were filmed!
If anyone knows this Japanese guy who joined our group, please have him hit us up on Facebook! He was hella stoked to get his photo with us!
Hiding behind a huge tree inside Ta Phrom temple
The ladies with our guide, Chantou, inside Ta Phrom temple
Another amazing tree seemingly consuming the temple at Ta Phrom
Exhausted and over saturated with information, we left Ankor Wat mid afternoon to cool down poolside in our hotel in the nearby town of Siem Reap. The nightlife in the touristy flanks of Siem Reap is bursting at the seams with nagging tuk tuk drivers, massage parlors, and fish tanks to clean off your day's work on your feet. Pub Street and adjacent Old Town areas are lined with restaurants and bars to suit nearly any taste--almost all advertising 50-cent local beer on draft (Angkor beer, what else?). Between these overbuilt streets lie narrow alleyways, also filled with eateries and flea market shops. March is supposed to be the start of the low season here, but year after year, Ankor Wat draws more and more tourists. At night, Siem Reap didn't feel like it was supporting a low season whatsoever!
Getting the feel for things on Pub Street (and getting dinner and drinks ahead of schedule from the rest of the tourists!)
We were fascinated by these lights in one of the fancy restaurants in which we dined on a Pub Street alley. They were constructed entirely of zip ties! What an idea!
Rested and refreshed, we had one more day in Siem Reap to visit temples. Rather than venture back into Ankor Wat/Ankor Thom, we decided to explore further out, a bit off the beaten track, to a temple in complete ruins, Beng Malea.
Beng Malea was a major site of destruction by the Thais when Thailand and Cambodia were at war, and further destruction of the temple occurred in the mid 20th century with Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge (for example, starting in 2003 and ongoing today, Germany has helped clear over 400 land mines in and around Beng Malea). Unlike Bayon or Ta Phrom, Beng Malea has not yet seen much restoration, which is the very thing that draws many tourists to visit.
To be honest, we felt that it was not really worth the $60 private taxi ride and time there and back to see this temple. While interesting and beautiful in its own right, less is known about Beng Malea than some of the other temples, which means there's less to learn from walking the ruins, even with a guide (which we had). Further, Beng Malea has far fewer ornate bas-relief carvings than its brother temple, Ankor Wat. It was nice, however, to escape the crowds and heat with the overgrown tree cover.
Beng Melea is overgrown with trees. Some trees contribute to the destruction of the temple while others, like these vines, hold the walls up!
Beng Melea workers taking their lunch
Frog from a pond just outside Beng Melea
Templed-out, we headed back the next day to Phnom Penh to have one last meal with Uncle Rob and prepare for the next leg of our journey together, Vietnam. In just a few days' time, we learned more about Cambodia, it's people, culture and history, than we probably have in the four visits we've made to Thailand put together. The history is rich and full of vibrant legends. The people, we found, were equally as effervescent today. Another day or two in Siem Reap would have been ideal to see more of Ankor Wat and Ankor Thom, but what we did see was magnificent and unlike anything back home.
More pictures of Siem Reap and the surrounding temples can be found here, and pictures from Phnom Penh can be found here.
My Review Of The Place I Stayed