A day off from the temples

Trip Start Oct 31, 2012
Trip End Dec 12, 2012

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I was originally scheduled to be in Siem Reap for only four days, but decided to extend my stay one more night.  That meant reducing my stay in Battambang, but still having to work out logistics on getting there by bus.  Prior to leaving the hotel, I ask the front desk how far of a walk it is to the museum and French Quarter.  They were stunned that I would want to walk, as a tuk-tuk could get me there in only about five minutes and for $1.  I know I'll get lost, but all of my best experiences while traveling come about when I am lost and stumble onto hidden treasures.

My first stop is the Angkor Wat museum, which is terrific.  The layout includes just enough artifacts to see, which won't overwhelm or bore you.  There, I learn that one of the kings was so benevolent to his people that he built 102 hospitals, and more than 150 rest homes for travelers -- for both his subjects and those for travelers from other kingdoms.  Schools were set up, his wife set up orphanages, and adopted many of the females who were abandoned by their parents.  From the notes left by the Chinese traveler, we learned the inventory of one hospital, which included over 1000 salves for those suffering from hemmoroids, which caught the attention of other visitors, and made them laugh. 

To show the extent of destruction of the temples to satisfy the cravings of private collectors, one statue on display tells of its history.  Long, long ago the head went missing from the original site, but was later found in the possesion of an American collector.  The head was returned to Cambodia, tests were done to confirm it matched the statue, and the two were reunited.  The most outrageous of them all involves Andre Malraux, the celebrated French Minister for Cultural Affairs. 

In his later life, he was highly regarded by the art community around the world for his devotion to the arts, and was highly respected.  However, in the 1920s, stationed in Cambodia, and broke, he was caught destroying the wall of a temple to get some incredible carvings, which he planned to sell to private collectors.  He was tried and convicted of his crimes, but I guess we all make mistakes in our youth.  

After my visit to the museum, I enquire about a bus ticket to Battambang.  This one travel agent told me it is only $5, and all the guidebooks say the journey is only three hours.  I'm told to buy the ticket no sooner than one day in advance, which means I will have to come back downtown tomorrow to make my purchase.  I then walk the French Quarter, hoping to see the beautiful colonial architecture left behind by the French, but I can't find any.  Only the wide, tree-lined streets are visible, but there sure are a lot of hotels being built here and everywhere else in the city.  

A couple from the Bay Area who are also staying at the same hotel as me tell me that they came to Siem Reap in the late 1990s, which only the most adventurous travelers dared make the trek. At that time, they tell me, there were only three hotels. They came back to see how things have changed, and were shocked and saddened to see how the entire place is overrun with hotels, and more are coming.

While planning my trip to Siem Reap, I had read that there were 1 million visitors in 2008.  Projected visitors in 2012 was 3 million!  I was also told by a tour guide that for Asian visitors, they want to see only about three or four of the most popular sites in one day, then leave town, which explains why they are extra crowded.  When I tell other tourists of my plight with the pushy Japanese tourists, they are all shocked, saying the same thing: "But the Japanese are so nice, they are the most civilized/only civilized nation in Asia.  (I got variations on the two regarding the "most/only" option, which ran about 50-50 in responses.)  My airplane ride with the Japanese was very pleasant, they were well mannered and respectful, but that facade appears to change when a photo op becomes available.  At least half of all visitors I come across are French-speaking.  I meet only a very slight number of Americans.  There are tons of (young) Australians, and other European groups come in a close third in the numbers.    

After a day of exloring this part of town, I stop by the Raffles Hotel, which is a luxury chain in this part of the world.  In the bar area, they have a wall of ten photographs of famous people who have stayed there.  Six of the ten pictures are of Jacqueline Onassis, who visited around 1975, when the war was raging.  One of them is personally autographed, wishing them best wishes.  I don't recognize the other four people.  

Back at my hotel, I spend the rest of the day reading about and planning for my last day of visiting the lesser temples.   
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