Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Temples of Angkor, Siem Reap

“You must go to Angkor Wat.” This was the message from our daughter Claire a year ago, after she left us in Thailand and set off to discover Laos and Cambodia on her own. So we came. We really didn’t know a great deal about the place before leaving Canada, despite the fact that it is generally regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. If I did learn about the Angkor Temples at university, I either was away from class that day, or have simply forgotten what I was taught.

Fortunately, we were given some advice by Gregg Macdonald, a former colleague at SFU, who had been here not so long ago. We also got briefings from the Buckleys in Singapore, the Lloyds in Pattaya, and Ross McClellan, who as residents of Southeast Asia, had all been here. But we really weren’t prepared for what we found.

Angkor Wat is just one of a number of temples located around Siem Reap in Cambodia. Since tourism was renewed about 17 years ago, this community has grown substantially, and become a major international tourist destination. Thousands of new hotel rooms have been built over the past five years in large three and four story complexes, with very similar designs and very similar names. We stayed at the Prince d’Angkor, which was about a year old, and located near the centre of the town. It featured a lot of wood, a very nice bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the pool. It was essential that we have a pool, since April is the hottest month. We have never perspired so much in our lives!

The town itself is not unattractive, with some large park areas. But all of the construction projects make it a very dusty place, and I think it will look much better in a few years when the major road works are finished, and there isn’t so much construction debris lying around.

As for the temples, words and photographs cannot do them justice. Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world. But it is just one of many. They are like the pyramids, in terms of the level of accomplishment they represent, especially given the times during which they were constructed. Some of the temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries. Others were constructed in the 15th century. Books have been written about each temple. Unfortunately, many years of war and political strife have taken a toll on the temples and the country, and while some of the structures are in better shape than others, many are best described as ruins.

Surprisingly, while the hotel construction is impressive, the arrangements for visitors were not. I thought we would be able to sign up for a tour, or take shuttle buses between the temples, but this wasn’t possible, unless we were Korean! (There were lots of tours for Koreans!) As a result, we had to make our own arrangements. There were a few choices. The hotel could arrange a car and driver and a guide. Alternatively, we could rent a bicycle, an electric bicycle or scooter, or take a tuk tuk. We weren’t really sure what to do, since we are sometimes uncomfortable spending too much time with private guides. We prefer to be able to wander off and not have to listen to their lengthy explanations. We also like being with small groups since we are spending a lot of time together!

We decided to take a tuk tuk our first day, but became so enamored with our driver that we ended up spending three days with him. Like most Cambodians, his family had been tragically affected by the Khmer Rouge; however unlike most of the other tuk-tuk drivers we have come across, he was well educated, had business cards with his email address, and could be reached by cell phone. He really made our stay here very special.

That’s not to say we liked everything we saw. We were very troubled by the results of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and the level of poverty, especially outside the city. At our driver’s suggestion, and the advice of others, we took a boat ride along a muddy river and out to a floating Vietnamese village in a nearby lake. We have never seen such squalid living conditions in our lives. We were also deeply troubled by the women and young children begging for money, or trying to sell you anything for a dollar. We bought a lot of bananas, but couldn’t really deal with the situation.

Another troubling site is the monument to the Killing Fields. A glass cage contains the bones and skulls of some of the victims of the Civil War. Young girls were selling some of the many books that have been written about this period in Cambodia’s history. Sally purchased a very powerful book by a young girl who lived through the period “First they killed my father.”

While the country’s past is very troubled, we both thought that the future looks much brighter for the Cambodian people. The temples of Angkor have the potential to become an even more popular international tourist destination that will benefit the entire country. However, there is still a lot to be done. Much of the countryside has unexploded land mines, which can make certain types of site seeing very treacherous, The country is unbelievably poor, and we were told many children must quit school after grade 6 in order to support their families. The population is greatly distorted with only a very small percentage of the people over 40 years of age, and far more women than men.

To try and sum it all up, we were glad to get the opportunity to see the very magnificent structures and complexes, with impressive carvings and layouts. Our favourites were Ta Phohm where the trees have overtaken the buildings, and Banteay Srei, with its beautiful carvings in a pinkish limestone.

But it was a very sad and difficult place to be. I found it hard to deal with the fact that the bottle of Pellegrino that we had with our last lunch at the Raffles Grand Hotel was equal to a week’s wages for some people. $5 would pay for a month’s schooling for our driver’s son. Some of the housing conditions were the worst we have ever seen, although the people were at least well fed, compared to those in Africa.

Siem Reap is a relatively affluent part of the country with very lovely people, who want to speak English. They made visitors feel very welcome and safe walking the streets. Although we can’t speak for Phnom Penh, since we decided not to go there, this is a country we would recommend for a visit. But it will be a long time before we come back. Perhaps we’ll bring Claire’s children.

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