Cambodia is a country of both stunning beauty and deep sadness. The country’s violent, recent history has left ugly scars, but the resilience of Cambodia’s people is demonstrated every day as they work to put things back on track. There are many international NGOs and aid organizations, as well as locally-owned and operated projects. It’s sometimes difficult for travelers to determine the best ways to help, but a little research goes a long way. For example, it may not be much, but we found some great restaurants and cafes that train disadvantaged, at-risk or disabled youth in the hospitality industry. They were often attached to larger social service programs. For shoppers, there are places set up for parents to sell handicrafts and souvenirs rather than send children into the streets. Here’s a link to one from Friends International. There are also many opportunities to buy items made by those disabled by landmines or in the wars. In Siem Reap and in Phnom Penh there are massage centers where all the therapists are blind, another way to help a traditionally disadvantaged group and feel doubly great. Stay Another Day Cambodia puts out a great, pro-local resource filled with projects, companies, tours, etc.
Our first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, Cambodia’s most famous tourist destination, a small but bustling town that serves as a base from which to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding area. A ticket is required to visit any of the temples in the Angkor Wat Archaeological Zone. We opted for a seven-day pass, that permits entry any seven days in one month. Typically, people hire a tuk tuk for the day, and the driver takes you from site to site, waiting while you go in and visit. There are some set circuits, and this was a convenient option to get oriented the first day. The rest of the time, except when we visited the far-outlying sites, we used a rented bicycle: cheap, convenient, and good exercise!
The zone covers a total of about 400 square kilometers dotted with temples from the Khmer Kingdom of the 9th to 15th century. Today it is the temples that remain, but long ago the whole area was a huge pre-industrial city, home to up to a million people at different points in time. Archaeologists are still amazed and perplexed by the complexity of the irrigation techniques including the huge barays (water reservoir). The one west of Angkor Wat is 8 kilometers by 2.5k and is still filled with water.
Early temples were built as Hindu temples, while some later ones were Buddhist as rulers went back and forth. At many sites you can see elements of both religions. Looting was a huge problem in the past, and many temples had fallen into disrepair during the years of war (early and more recent). There have been some pretty amazing reconstruction efforts, with local and international collaboration. There are many more projects underway and being planned.
The most famous, most photographed temple is Angkor Wat, built around the first half of 12th century by King Suryavarman II. It’s form is in the Hindu “temple mountain” style with a main structure topped by five towers, the whole thing surrounded by a moat. The grounds are extensive, and though it’s always swarming with tourists, there are a few lonely halls and niches where you can escape the crowds. The bas reliefs depicting scenes from mythology and from historical events cover many walls and are truly amazing. After a while you begin to recognize certain figures, symbols and themes. Some sections really reminded us of places we’d visited in Java.
Angkor Thom was the capital a bit later, and was built by another ruler. It is believed the population here at the time was around a million! Bayon temple, located in this complex, is best known for its 54 towers, each with 4 huge stone faces (216 total). This is a Buddhist temple, and there is another full kilometer of bas relief to examine and enjoy. To the northwest, Bauphon temple has a giant reclining Buddha emerging from the stone of the back wall that becomes clear when looking from a certain angle. We really liked the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom, with rows of stone elephants standing like timeless guardians.
At a number of temples, most notably Ta Prohm, giant tree roots have worked their way between the stones, wreaking havoc and destruction, but making for some gorgeous photographs reflecting man vs. nature. Another one of our favorites in the main area was Pre Rup, more peaceful than some and with really beautiful views, especially at sunset. There are a dozen or so more major temples right in this area, and we chose a few each day to explore, taking things nice and slow.
At each temple, upon arrival, you are approached by a handful of ladies and kids asking you to buy the following (the vast majority priced at $1): magnets, carvings, scarves, wooden whistles or flutes, ten postcards, books, sarongs, water, pineapple, a coconut, paper folded into a dragonfly or flower…the list goes on. There are usually also food stalls set up where you can get drinks or a light meal (at twice the price of in-town). Even if you’re not at all interested, a simple “No thank-you.” is not enough, as these industrious salespeople have developed clever strategies to increase the likelihood of a sale.
1. Casual Conversation. The vendor starts off asking where you’re from, how long you’ve been in town, etc. before launching into her spiel about having the best whatever.
2. Switch Languages. The kids are best at this. Since they usually have the postcards, they start counting them out in about any language you can think of, followed by, “You buy now?”. Vocabulary is limited to what’s needed for a sale, but it’s pretty amazing. (Side note, we make it a rule not to buy from kids, since it often does more harm than good, but that is an involved, necessarily separate topic.)
3. Make it Personal. Vendors ask your name. Then they say, “Ok, Donny. I’ll remember you.” And they do. When you come back out of a temple after no matter how long someone is calling your name. “Will you eat some food now? Drink water now?” It catches you off guard. Genius.
4. Ask for Commitment. “If you buy, you buy from me, okay?” This adds the guilt element, and worked on us more than once. If you say no at first, the vendor tells you her name and/or stall number. No more pressure, but she asks that if you DO decide to buy, it should be from her. Pretty fair actually, and once she’s got you, other vendors tend to back off too.
Further from Angkor Wat, at some of the outlying temples, things are more laid back. The Roluos group are the oldest, predating Angkor Wat. Even further out, an hour or so away, Banteay Srey is a beautiful, pink color temple complex with superbly preserved carvings. A little way further, Kbal Spean gets you back to nature with a hike through the rain forest to the numerous sculptures and carvings submerged along the river. The area is also known as the 1000 lingas (a phallic symbol representing Shiva). There’s a nice waterfall and some caves here as well.
The Landmine Museum, set up by local deminer Aki Ra educated locals and tourists about the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXO). His story is an interesting one: he laid mines himself for the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier. He later joined the Vietnamese Army, also against his will. Now his life is dedicated to peace. The museum contains lots of info, as well as piles of landmines and weapons manufactured in China, the US, Germany, etc. mostly from the 40s to the 70s. The site also provides a home and schooling for a number of child survivors of landmines. Still today injuries and death from landmines and UXOs are sadly pretty common.
A week was hardly enough to take it all in, and we exhausted ourselves trying. Evenings were spent eating good food at reasonable prices, washed down with $.50 happy hour Angkor beers. We even had the chance to catch up with two different friends who happened to be visiting the area at the same time. It was a rewarding experience, one we will never forget.