April 21, 2011

I spent this past weekend in the Siem Reap area in Cambodia.  Siem Reap is known for it’s surrounding temples, in particular Angkor Wat which has been labeled the 8th wonder of the world.

If Siem Reap was not known for housing the largest temple, it would be known for having the most in any one area.  A quick drive around town showed you countless temples built by various kings to show their devotion to the gods during their rule.

Angkor Wat is about 1000 years old, and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.  Over time though the Khmer people (the Cambodians) moved more toward Buddhism, so now many Buddhas are in and around Angkor Wat.  The culture is very interesting as most of their beliefs and stories are same as those in India.

We stared our trip by going to a local buffet and eating food local to Cambodia and the surrounding countries.  While we ate, we were entertained by traditional Khmer style dancing.  These dances told stories of the gods and of daily life in the fields.

The day after, we set out to see one of the smaller temple groups while working our way back toward town.  We finished the day by going to Ta Prohm, one of the temples in which_ Tomb Raider_ was filmed.

The next day we woke up at 5:00 AM to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat, a must do while in Siem Reap.  This was absolutely georgeous, though it did take a minute to find the sweet spot.  There we were, barely awake, honestly unable to really understand what the hype over the sunrise was all about, when we saw a large crowd of people seemingly all trying to get in the same spot.

Sure enough, there is definitely a spot where every thing looks great.  I was able to get some pretty cool shots as the sun rose over the west side of Angkor Wat.

After that, we headed back to eat breakfast and rest before taking a tour of the floating village.  One of the largest freshwater lakes is south of Siem Reap, and as you enter the lake, you are greeted by was sums up to be a floating shanty town.

As we rode out to the lake, we passed a father and a young boy; the boy couldn’t have been over 7 years old, but probably not even that old.  They smiled, and we waved.  Next thing I know the boy is pulling a large circular basket out of a cooler and his father is driving over.  As their boat neared the boy jumped out and landed on our boat announcing: “One dollar sir, one dollar”.  He was selling drinks.

The level of poverty was horrendous.  On our way to the boat tour, we passed what no American would consider a home.  It was basically a large shanty town beside the river.  The poverty worsened as we got further away from Siem Reap, and culminated in the floating village. Very few, if any, Americans live in this level of poverty.

So that was our morning, after which we rested, ate lunch, and went back to Angkor Wat.  For lunch, I decided to have a classic Khmer style meal, and ordered Amok Chicken.  Basically, it was chicken and a sort of sauce cooked inside a coconut.  Needless to say, it was very good and left me stuffed.

The photos from Angkor Wat on the outside don’t really do it justice; the place is huge.  It is surrounded by a mote that represents the universe, and your crossing it represents a passing from the land of mortals into the realm of the gods.

The walls are filled with bas-reliefs depicting various Hindu stories.  The two prominent Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata had a large wall dedicated to each of  them.  From what I understand, Ramayana is centered around Vishnu and one of his incarnations, which aligns with the temple being built in honor of Vishnu.

After watching the sun set at Angkor Wat (another beautiful sight), Nick and I decided to rest up for the next day.

The next day, we started out by going to see Angkor Thom, which literally means large city.  The location had been used as a capital for many years, and one king finally decided to enclose and enlarge it.

It now is surrounded by a large stone wall, with the south entrance being the main entry point.  The entrance is lined with statues of gods and demons holding the Naga (a snake), which is symbolic of the churning of the sea of milk, a common theme in Hinduism.

Upon entering, Bayon will be the first thing you see.  It is a temple with countless facial depictions of a god; it is estimated that at one point there were 216 faces within Bayon.

There are countless other things to see in Angkor Thom, including a bridge decorated with lavish stone reliefs, quite a few large temples, what appears to be an old palace, and a Buddha the size of a house.

After leaving Angkor Thom, we went to Siem Reap’s war museum where we learned about the horrors that much too often face the people of South East Asia.

Our guide told us of loosing his family as a boy, then joining the army well before the age of 18.  He has now lost most of his family to land mine explosions due to anti-personnel mines left behind.

His leg (only one, he lost the other in a land mine accident), has scars where bullets went in and shattered the bone along with a large piece of shrapnel stuck under the skin near his knee cap.

We learned that there are 4 million land mines left in Cambodia from their civil war and past conflicts and that there are approximately 36 deaths a month due to these.  I left there feeling very somber and with a new appreciation for the lack of violence on American soil.

From there, we basically just checked out local culture and stayed within Siem Reap.  I had another Khmer dish, Chicken Lok Lak, which was chicken with an interesting lemony spice to dip it in.

Overall, Cambodia was a wonderful trip that exposed me to what the rest of the world faces.  Seeing Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom is an unforgettable experience that everyone should have the opportunity to see.

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