- Dates visited: September 12-17, 2014
- Base of operations: Siem Reap (downtown, Pub Street/Old Market area)
- Currency: riel, USD (USD preferred; $1 = 4082 riel)
- Major attractions: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Bantay Srei
- Best/most exotic food we tried: lok lak (beef dish), bao (steamed bun with meat filling), amok (soup-type dish), BBQ frog
- Recommended length of stay: 3-5 days
A millenium ago, there was an empire of rulers who strove, in the nature of men, to prove that “Mine is bigger — or better — than yours”, much as the Pharaohs of Egypt did two thousand years before, by building temples in Southeast Asia. Their legacy of glory is now known as the Angkor Archeological Park.
Glib as I may sound, taking this trip was actually quite amazing for me. Thailand was high on David’s list, but for me, Angkor had long hovered near the top, underneath Egypt and Greece (both not-so-incidentally also known for their rich histories and antiquities, and both, due to a curious mix of circumstances, I have yet to visit).
What can I say about Angkor? Our journey through the temples was mostly self-guided, with a pocket guide book to tease out some details. Besides the few paragraphs we could read and what our driver Rin could tell us, we mostly wandered on our own. We attempted to explore while avoiding loud, rowdy and slow tour groups. We clambered over fallen masonry, climbed up and down stairs (and steps too narrow to deserve being called stairs), ducked through arches and doorways, walked through corridors and around walls. We examined carvings and marvelled at bas reliefs. We learned about Buddhism and Hinduism. One day we forayed into the forest and meandered along a riverbed that still bore the evidence of human art and religion.
That was in the daytime, three out of four full days we had in the area. In the evenings, we cooled off at the hotel pool and then set out to the markets for food and shopping. We had massages (relaxing, but not too effective) and got mani pedis, and I got a hair cut. We tried a fish massage and got our feet almost unbearably tickled, and were unsure afterward if it actually did anything. We ate curry and fish amok and beef lok lak, and David tried Cambodian beers. We eschewed the crowds and high-end vibe of Pub Street for the equally crowded but much more down-to-earth Old Market and Night Market. We bought all sorts of exotic food from roadside stalls and roving vendors (bbq stuffed frog anyone? Meat in a bun? Street noodles? Crepes? I could go on).
And what about the people? Everyone we met extended such hospitality. I remember thinking, here are people who have so little and they know it, surrounded as they are by tourists like us who spend amounts of money that must seem like such luxury. And yet, their kindness, their cheer, their openness is almost unmatched. How do they do it? In all the atrocious motorcycle traffic, dangerous opposite-lane driving and near-accidents we witnessed, not one person appeared upset or angry. They all seemed so easygoing, their demeanors so calm and unruffled. The vendors and massage therapists at the markets were a bit persistent, and so were the children near the temples selling water and trinkets. But even then, after a day or so we became accustomed and it was just a matter of a polite but firm “No thank you” and walking on (and on occasion, walking away and turning back when the vendor drops the price of the item to exactly what you wanted).
It was everything I thought it would be and more. And what I would give to see the temples as they had been at their prime: a testament to the power and majesty (and piety) of their builders.
There is of course a myriad reasons why these temples were built: cultural, religious, economic. But essentially, I believe it is the very same reason we build skyscrapers now, each higher than the last, each more of an architectural marvel. To prove that we human beings are the masters of our world, that we can tame even the sky, and that our awesomeness will be remembered in what we have created. I wonder, a millenium from now, what will the generations think of what we have left behind?