8.09.2012

Cambodia: Siem Reap and Angkor Wat


::: Angkor Wat :::

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The ancient city of Ankgor spans 400 square miles across the northern jungles of Cambodia. Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, it is a man-made world wonder, and the largest existing pre-industrial city in the world.

No place I've ever visited could have prepared me for my first time I saw Angkor's magnificent temples. My favorite was the temple of Bayon (top photo), where multiple stone faces peer down from high towers, their faces eerily frozen in serene smiles. The sight sent a shiver up my spine, and I explored the temple's galleries and terraces in a hushed, dream-like daze. The spell was only broken by a run-in with Bayon's unruly neighbors, a community of mischievous macaque monkeys who socialize in the shady grasses across the road.

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bamboo rice and weird neck

Inside Angkor, street vendors sold rice and beans steamed in coconut milk, stuffed into hollowed bamboo, and roasted over hot coals. You peel back the bamboo and use the broken bamboo pieces as a make-shift spoon to scoop out the sticky rice. Really delicious. 

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Bayon

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Temple exploring. (Pictured: Me, Hilary, Athena, and Bryan)


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We met many monkeys, but never saw an elephant. 

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Perches and lookouts.

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The famed strangler figs of Angkor. 

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 ::: Siem Reap :::


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Phnom Penh Bus Station / The lovely Golden Temple Villa.  Broke my heart to leave. 

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The tuk-tuk was our preferred mode of transport. 

On the 12 hour bus ride from Saigon to Siem Reap, I read First They Killed My Father, the chilling memoirs of Loung Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge death camps. I didn't know what to expect, but I was wary to learn what those horrific years of war and genocide left behind. Though still recovering, the Cambodia we found was a vibrant, beautiful, jungle paradise, home to lots of easy-going people with their own brand of playful humor. Despite the country's very recent tragic history, people smiled with their whole faces. The children alone could have kept me there for months. They were so funny and brilliant, despite working long hours at young ages. Even the street kids selling their handmade crafts spoke perfect English. One kid, probably 7 or 8 years old, rattled off a string of US state capitals, in hopes to win our business. A girl selling bottled water quipped in her sing-song accent, "You know Obama? He's my father." It is no wonder that I bought more knick-knacks in Cambodia than on our previous trips. They shook us down.


If you go: 
The nearby tourist hub is Siem Reap, only a couple of miles from the Angkor Archaeological Park. You can find flights to Siem Reap's airport, or if you're traveling from Vietnam or Thailand, you can purchase a bus ticket and get your visa at the border. It's easy to get around town. For just a few bucks, you can hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day. You can also rent a bicycle or hitch a ride on the back of a scooter. (For two dollars, we rode three to a seat on the back of a policeman's motorbike. Eeps!) A day pass to the park costs $20 or $40 for a three day pass. You'll want the three days.

We loved our stay at the Golden Temple Villa, a pretty ballin' accommodation considering the price of only $12 dollars a night. The guesthouse was decorated with brightly colored walls and Khmer art, and vines and palms shaded the hammock-strewn courtyard. The hotel's restaurant can make a killer fish amok, and the fresh pineapple juice and fruit shakes were the best I tasted on the trip. Also, there were banana pancakes every morning. The hotel is just down the street from Siem Reap's night market, which is like a really wild, seedy, carnival midway.

Suggested Reading:
This NYT article, On the Verge; The Overwhelming of Angkor, does a lovely job of capturing the magnificence of Angkor. It also explains some current issues Angkor faces today as a relatively new tourist attraction.

First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung. This is a moving narrative of tragedy, courage and survival during the Cambodian genocide lead by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. It was emotionally exhausting to read, often horrifying, but I think it is an important read for anyone visiting Cambodia. The memoir is written from a child's perspective, and the innocence and spirit that shines through in Ung's writing told a story that can't be found in a history book.


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Up next, photos from Vietnam.

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