27 February 2015

Ankgor Wat - Siem Reap's Raison d'être

Two scintillating weeks of travel through Cambodia and Vietnam launched me into 2015. Last summer when Daryl groaned at my "boring" decision to fly directly to Australia after New Year from South Africa, I perused a map to see what lay between these two countries. Cambodia and Vietnam glared indignantly back at me with a "Hell-lo-oh?". Yup! Why not yield to the current fashion?

My friend, Alicia, asked to join me when I mentioned I was going to see Angkor Wat. We came up with an itinerary with the help of friends who had recently traveled to the region and booked all our hotels in advance. We didn't want to invite unnecessary adventure since we figured we'd be encountering plenty once we were in Asia.

The first striking thing about Cambodia was the warmth and openness of the Khmer people. Their perpetual smiles and eagerness to be accommodating was actually heartbreaking. How could one avoid thinking about the brutality they endured under the Khmer Rouge?

Cambodia's past - both ancient and recent - haunts the visitor constantly. At my first destination, Siem Reap,  I was immersed in the history of the early Angkor era - from the years 802 - 1200, when all the glorious temples were built. At the same time, the chilling political events of the 1970's was ever pervasive. You are constantly made aware of the efforts to assist land-mine victims and street kids. Many foreigners, especially from Northern Europe, have set up infrastructure to develop this very poor country. They hire and train locals in an attempt to help and build up the local economy and community. At the temple exits a band of land mine victims plays traditional music to earn a living. Several training restaurants make it their mission to rescue street youngsters - the offspring of either soldiers or victims of the Khmer Rouge - and train them in the various aspects of the restaurant industry.

So spending time in Cambodia inadvertantly is an educational experience.

Day 1: We checked in at the Swedish owned Soria Moria Hotel in Siem Reap and I can't say enough wonderful things about this little boutique hotel. Entering its clean and elegant lobby I felt an instant rush of joy. The very friendly staff, the first Khmer people we interacted with, welcomed us with a refreshing fruit juice, and patiently answered our questions. They set us up with a tuk-tuk driver and suggested temple tour itineraries for the next 3 days. Our spacious room, furnished with gorgeous wooden furniture, felt utterly luxurious. I was jet-lagged and tired from my eight hour flight. I quickly showered, unpacked, and sank into a blissful nap.
It was late afternoon when we ventured out into the center of Siem Reap, across the river from us. Within minutes of leaving the hotel we found ourselves gawking at a beautiful temple. No, not one of those famous ones, but a more recently built ordinary one. Continuing our walk we discovered an unexpectedly charming center. A river slices through the little town and pretty bridges connect the two sides. Since it was early January holiday lights decorated the main bridge and parks. Every bar in town - and there were many - advertised Happy Hour specials. Cocktails, beer, and wine of top quality and irresistibly priced ($1.00 - $3.00) ensured full bars with happy customers. We were very entertained by the lively vibe from cafes, craft markets, restaurants, spa places, hotels, shops, and tourists.Yes, hundreds of tourists from all over the world - here to see one of the most famous monuments in the world - Angkor Wat. And the tourists give Siem Reap its raison d'être.

The Old Market Quarter of SiemReap

We meandered through a narrow lane of shops and cafes and then came to the famous Pub Street, where we spotted a huge Mexican restaurant. It's buzzy terrace full of tourists sipping margaritas was irresistible to us. Luckily the extensive menu had some traditional Khmer curries so we felt quite justified to relax here in the shade with a chilled Angkor beer while contemplating dinner.

Wandering further through the town after our very tasty meal, we were impressed at how much livelier it had become. Night markets with food stalls had opened up on every street and alley. Spa places offering massages and other treatments at absurdly low prices were in full swing. We saw tourists with their feet in little fish tanks where fish were nibbling at their dead skin. We considered getting the fish treatment, but it felt too icky for us. Wandering through the delightful Old Market we got a good idea of the local crafts, most notably handmade silks and cotton scarves with the traditional checkered pattern. I loved the intricate embroidery of the colorful cotton handbags which came in different sizes. On and on we walked, enjoying the coolness of the evening air, until our aching feet forced us back to our comfortable beds.

Day 2
Wow! What an incredible breakfast spread greeted us in the dining room! Fresh pastries, Asian stir fry, tropical fruit, an egg station, healthy breads, a variety of fruit juices, teas, and Cambodian coffee. A full day of sightseeing awaited us so we took the liberty to pig out. I ordered a poached egg and was most impressed at how perfect it turned out. I was a bit skeptical about the coffee, but to my surprise it was quite strong, yet smooth and a tad sweet.

Our tuk-tuk driver arrived at 8:00 AM to take us on a tour of the inner circuit of temples. I hesitated when I saw the driver on a motorcycle hitched to a carriage. But I didn't have a choice. This was how you got around here.

First temple - the most famous, most magnificent, and largest - Angkor Wat. It was about a half hour drive from our hotel - through less built up areas. We saw locals going about their daily business - uniformed school kids on bicycles, workers on scooters, busy cafés in wall-less shed type structures.

We drove by a huge lake, but soon realized it was the moat around Angkor Wat - a prelude to the staggering scale of this temple. This national symbol of Cambodia was built between 1113 and 1152 by Suryavarman II and dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu.
At the crowded entrance you have to cross a really wide bridge before coming to an elaborate entrance building, which I thought was the actual temple. Then you go along a promenade flanked by rectangular lakes and enter a central temple famous for its bas reliefs which extend completely around the building. We spent some time here trying to understand the historical events depicted in these impressive carvings, which exemplified the sophisticated art of the period. Further on, along a different wall, the bar relief showed scenes from the Hindu epic the Mahabarata. Scenes from the Ramayana - which I'd read many years ago - were also illustrated, and it was great fun to identify the gods and their actions. Imbued in the strong spirit of Hindu mythology, I lingered a little too long.

The sun had climbed higher and leaving the shaded hallway to get to the heart of the complex was a challenge. My heart sank when I realized I had to ascend a steep flight of unshaded stairs. Traveling for adventure was not supposed to be easy. Up I went, one step at a time, and found myself at the base of the enormous towers.

The highest tower rises from the exact middle of the entire Angkor Wat complex. It symbolizes Mount Meru,  abode of the gods, the Mount Olympus of Hindu mythology. The other towers supposedly symbolize the other peaks of Meru. Hinduism was the religion of the Khmers during the early Angkor period and sculptures and carvings of Vishnu, Siva, and Brahma and other gods decorate the temples. Later, when Buddhism was introduced, statues of Buddha were added. This explained the existence of the hall of a thousand Buddhas which we were glad not to have missed in this vast place.
What must it have been like a thousand years ago when people lived, worked, and worshipped here?After 3 hours of exploring the buildings and grounds in punishing heat, I was ready to collapse on a bed of ice.

We should have called it a day at this point. There was so much to assimilate. Plus, we were physically wiped out. A fine lunch, followed by a siesta, then a spa treatment, a happy hour cocktail, and dinner. That's what we should have done. Foolishly we thought all we needed was a one hour lunch break and we'd be ready for more.

We relaxed at Palmboo Restaurant (suggested by our tuk-tuk driver), which served traditional Khmer curries. It was in a tropical setting with coconut palms around it and sort of in the middle of nowhere, but minutes from our next destination. I had coconut water right out of a freshly cut coconut to go with my mildly spiced, but very aromatic vegetable curry. Nothing is more refreshing and thirst quenching than coconut water.

The name Jayavarman VII kept coming up during our afternoon tour since he had commissioned most of the inner circuit buildings. We visited Ta Prom, a much smaller temple, famous for ancient trees choking the ruins and towering over them. It was left unrestored to show what the temples looked like when they were found.

Back in the tuk-tuk with the heat beating down on us and dust from unpaved roads coating our arms and legs, we approached the next temple - Bayon. We entered the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom - the last capital of the Khmer Empire - through its famous south gate with carved faces each pointing in a cardinal direction - characteristic of the architectural design in this area.

This city was founded by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century and was the capital until the 17th century. We drove past the Terrace of the Elephants, the focal point of Royal receptions and the entrance to the Royal palace. We past the Terrace of the Leper King before arriving at the center where we saw the Bayon Temple. This beautiful temple had 54 Gothic towers, decorated with 216 enormous faces of some king when it was built.
With much effort I forced my body past the entrance, and along the unshaded path to the building.  I found it a bit spooky to be stared at by the huge faces.Thankfully, it was much smaller than Angkor Wat and a few minutes of exploration was sufficient.

Time for another break. We cooled down at the stylish Blue Pumpkin near the entrance to Angkor Wat. The ultra-modern and very popular Blue Pumpkin Cafés in and around Siem Reap looked like they had been lifted from a European capital and planted here. Sinking into a comfortable chair in air-conditioned luxury, I took guilty pleasure in leaving behind the exotic world of Cambodia. I ordered a scoop of their famous, homemade ice-cream and spent a blissful hour being inert.

Everyone has to see sunset over Angkor Wat - so we were told. Our driver took us to Phnom Bakheng for this purpose. Due to the crowds we set out early - around 4:00 - and had to hike up a hill to some temple ruins for the best views. Looking across I could see the whole Angkor Wat complex. This big picture gave me a better understanding of my morning tour. At the opposite end - the west - we could see the Tonle Sap Lake. Sunset would be over the lake so my expectations of a transformed Angkor Wat sank way down. However, it was quite pleasant up on the hill sitting on the remains of the walls of an ancient temple. We were highly amused by tourists smiling at their iPhones perched on selfie sticks "Taking the selfie to new lengths," I joked, and smiled at my cleverness! Alicia and I couldn't understand the hype over the somewhat ordinary sunset, but the photos revealed a beauty we hadn't fully grasped in real time.

As the light faded we made our way down the hill. A sudden chorus of shrill rings pierced the air. It took me a while to figure out that they were made by cicadas. Louder, shriller than I'd ever heard before.

Back at the hotel, all smartly dressed, after painfully fantastic showers, we considered dinner options that didn't require effort. Fortunately one of the city's finest restaurants, The Square 24, was just across the street. This place exceeded our expectations. The contemporary design with open air seating and tables along a rectangular pond and beautiful lighting gave an instant feeling of being indulged. Stellar service and first rate Asian cuisine cheered us to no end. The delicate flavors in my meal - a traditional Khmer curry - came from whole green cardamom pods, lemongrass, and black pepper. There was a good variety of fresh vegetables cooked just enough to deepen their flavors and colors, but retained a crunch. Trés magnifique! It really was the perfect ending to a most interesting day.