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
Angkor Wat is just one of a number of temples located around Siem Reap in
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
While the country’s past is very troubled, we both thought that the future looks much brighter for the Cambodian people. The temples of
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
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