November 3, 2008
Siem Rep and Cambodia
A short 30 minute flight from Bangkok is Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to ancient temples and world heritage sites. Needing a break from grading student midterm papers, I decided to treat myself to a three day visit to this "must see" area. It was well worth the journey and cost. After lunch, set out for Cambodia's amazing temple complex of Angkor Wat. Overnight at the Angkor Palace Resort & Spa.
The airport is small but modern. Beautiful tropical plants, surround the terminal building. Customs only takes a few minutes with a $30 American fee for the visa. Dollars is the currency in favor in Cambodia. In fact cash machines pump out dollars rather than riels. The Cambodian riel is mainly used for buying local produce and other merchandise. The United States Dollar (USD) is known as Cambodia's unofficial second currency.
Siem Reap literally translated means "Siamese defeated." In early history fights over the land and temples were prevalent. In past years, the empire of Angor included much of Thailand. Even today, the temples near the border are being fought over. But Siem Reap itself is safe with a small town look and feel to it. Many roads are dirt, with a red-yellow color. Getting there by plane cost about $200 from Bangkok. The alternative is a very long bus ride along the bumpy back country.
My guide greets me just outside of customs holding a sign with my name on it. He says in somewhat broken English that our driver is waiting at the van. Here, as in many countries the job of tour guide is separate from the job of driver. Drivers typically do not speak English. I opted for a 4 star hotel and was not disappointed. The hotel lobby was beautiful with lovely carvings in local woood. My room was very spacious and overlooked the swimming pool. Definitely a nice treat -- particularly because there was nice little bakery inside the hotel with yummy cinnamon raisin buns.
The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are north of town. But there are many many temples to explore in the area. In exploring the temples, there are beautiful carvings everywhere, snakes, lions, elephants adorn the ruins. Even the bridges crossing over streams, have carved railings with men pulling ropes, or serpents across the water.
Angkor Wat is considered the world's largest religious building. There are moats surrounding the temple. Despite being left to rot in the jungle for many many centuries, the temples still bring to life in the "mind's eye" the wonders of the past. You can picture the craft person doing detailed carvings on the walls. If you look closely, you can see where one carving is not finished and you wonder if the person died or the project ran out of money.
In some cases the temples have been patched to restore their structural integrity. According to one travel guide the process is anastylosis and was developed by the dutch. Put simply original materials are used to reconstruct that which has eroded or collapsed. Only when the original material can not be found, can other materials be used.
The Temples all have inscriptions and tell stories about the people and the culture. One can follow along the sandstone walls, the story of a group making a pilgrimage, elephants being used to build a structure. There are exquisite depictions of dancers. On first glances they all appear to be the same, but then a closer look shows that they are different -- a hand raised, fingers bent forward or back, a slightly different costume. Visiting the temples demands stamina. There are lots and lots of tiny ancient stairs. It is also very hot and humid.
One of the sad facts of visiting the ancient temples is that many of the figures were beheaded or damaged. During times of turmoil, the temples have been pilfered and robbed. As government change and religions dominate, the temples also have been damaged. Was very sad to see this damage. Now as world heritage sites, it is hopeful that preservation can take hold. A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a site (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is considered to have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity.
In addition to the temples, I also visited a silk farm. Here individuals from the rural areas of Cambodia are taught the craft of silk weaving and dying. They serve voluntary apprenticeships for which they receive board and room. In exchange, they are taught to weave the silk, loom complex designs.
It was fascinating to see the silk larvae. Apparently 30 percent of the silk larvae are allowed to develop and mature to restore the stock. The others still in the larvae are placed in the sun so the larvae die. The silk comes from these cocoons. At the silk farm, the guide tried to shock me by gobbling down a few silk worms. Yummy protein, he said. At this training center, only nature dyes are used on the silk. These dyes create a beautiful array of colors.
I also visited a craft workshop which teaches young people (a large group of deaf) ancient crafts. These include intricate wood carving, stone work, painting, inlay work, and ceramics. Workers are paid a living wage and upon completion of their training, they may start their own craft business.
Cambodia, while one of the poorest countries in the world economically, is rich in its cultural heritage. A visit is like stepping back in time. A time we must remember and must preserve.