April 6th - April 8th, 2014
I think I will always associate Cambodia with lemongrass and sandalwood. We arrived after a very early flight (wake up call was 3:45 am - but our internal clocks still had no idea what time it really was) to a country fractured by genocide and decades of war. Cambodia has only enjoyed peace for less than 13 years and it is trying hard to develop a foothold in the tourism industry. Currency is primarily the US dollar and English is the second language of young Cambodian people.
The scene at immigration was a bit chaotic as the Regent group was mixed in with other passengers and we all needed on-arrival visas. Most of us had completed our paperwork and had the necessary passport photo in hand - some of us didn't. An official collected paperwork and passports (no queues, just a teeming crowd of sleepy passengers) and took the pile of passports to another area where a team of other officials reviewed them, stamped our documents, and returned them to a now anxious group (weren't we told to always be within 3 feet of our passports?) in order to go through immigration where our passports were stamped again in three colors.
Regent had contracted with a regional agency to ferry us to the hotel and the temples for the next two days. A fleet of small busses was waiting outside the terminal, 11 passengers and a guide to a bus - our touring team for the next two days. Our guide, Arun, was excellent and seemed to know everything about his country - from ancient history to current political corruption. It is a tribute to a good guide that my interest was peaked and I wanted to read and explore more. He was a child during the Cambodian genocide and described in detail the impact on his family and on his country. We were moved by his gentle soul and deep resilience in the face of adversity.
The Sofitel in Siem Reap was truly an oasis. Although only 8 years old, it is built in a SE Asian colonial style that is elegant and reminiscent of another era. All the buildings are connected with gardens, covered walkways and ponds filled with lotus.
Breakfasts were amazing - eggs, fruit, pastries, cold cuts, hot breakfast meats - all beautifully presented, and best of all, individual carafes of french press coffee! There are several dining venues at the hotel. We opted for the bar where they had interesting cocktails, beer, and light meals.
After lunch and a rest, we regrouped on our busses and went off to our first temple, Banteay Srey. Banteay Srey is located about 45 minutes into the countryside - the temple farthest from the town. Cambodia has little infrastructure and we passed villages built in the traditional style with no sanitation or potable water. The World Health Organization and the UN are helping the Cambodian people but without a considerable infusion of time and resources, it will be long and arduous road into the 21st century.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complex dates from the 8th to the 12th century and was re-discovered, excavated, and re-built in the 20th century. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This temple was invaded by termites and thought to be a termite mound until excavated by a French archeologist in the 30's. Interested in more info? This is the Wikipedia entry which describes the site perfectly:
"Banteay Srei or Banteay Srey is a 10th-century Cambodian temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Located in the area of Angkor in Cambodia. It lies near the hill of Phnom Dei, 25 km (16 mi) north-east of the main group of temples that once belonged to the medieval capitals of Yasodharapura and Angkor Thom. Banteay Srei is built largely of red sandstone, a medium that lends itself to the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still observable today. The buildings themselves are miniature in scale, unusually so when measured by the standards of Angkorian construction. These factors have made the temple extremely popular with tourists, and have led to its being widely praised as a "precious gem", or the "jewel of Khmer art."
That evening we went to a restaurant, Tamgram Gardens, that is a training ground for young people interested in the food service industry. It was difficult to get to so they sent a tuk tuk to fetch you and return you to the hotel.
This was such a great way to see the town of Siem Riep which seems to have more infrastructure than what we had seen in the countryside. The restaurant is in a garden setting and the staff was so very eager and gracious. At the end of the meal, the chef came out to make sure we were happy with the meal - and to practice his English!
We had a very early start to get a jump on the heat, visiting Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple complex. Angkor Thom (literally: "Great City") was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII and, within the walls of city, houses Bayon temple, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and others. This quote from the Tourism Cambodia site captured the significance of the site.
"Symbolically, Angkor Thom is a microcosm of the universe, divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon is situated at the exact center of the axes and stands as the symbolical link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolizes the cosmic ocean."
The entrance to the complex:
Detail of a carving at the Bayon Temple depicting one of the great wars of the King:
Shrapnel wounds from the war with the Khmer Rouge
The Elephant Terrace
Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings make a haunting, and somewhat melancholy, sight.
After lunch and a well needed rest, we spent the late afternoon visiting the Angkor Wat Temple complex. Perhaps I had had my fill of temples, but the sheer size of the site was overwhelming. The intention was to tour and wait for the sun to set as the light on the temple makes for beautiful photography. By the time the light conditions were perfect, we had lost our enthusiasm and all we really wanted was a cold shower and a beer.