Sunday, January 21, 2007
Angkor Wat, the generic name for the Khmer temples around Siem Reap, Cambodia, is one of the truly great sites of the world, and I am glad we were able to go there before it becomes completely commercial. Already scores of hotels have gone up in Siem Reap and more are on the drawing boards in this otherwise sleepy little town that saw its main historical site occupied by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.
There are many, many temples you can visit while you are there, and for all but the most avid, you can easily get burned out. To avoid this, Roberta, Marty and I took a leisurely pace of a couple a day, with ample breaks for tea, naps, shopping, and meals. Also, we took a cruise on the nearby lake, where we were able to peek into the daily lives of the families that live in houseboats along the water.
The main event is Angkor Wat itself, which is best seen either at dawn or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky. Below you can see people climbing the extremely narrow and treacherous steps to one of the towers.
Despite the hype, Angkor Wat itself was not my favorite. That honor goes to either Angkor Thom (pictured at the top), or Banteay Kdei, the first temple we saw. Angkor Thom has absolutely fantastic bas reliefs, depicting both the historic and mundane events of the era---from women picking lice out of each other's hair to grand battles. At Banteay Kdei, Marty had a decidely "deja vu" experience which was very eerie. He had a strong feeling in a couple of places that he had been there before, even though this was his first visit to Cambodia (at least in this lifetime). You can see him in one of the places that felt familiar, clearly awestruck.
Cambodia is still a poor country, though it has invested far more in tourism than the main spots in India. The airport is very modern and clean, financed heavily by the visa fees of $20 per person and the exorbitant exit tax of $25 USD.
Thousands of land mines still remain in Cambodia, and the large number of survivors do their best to make a living through various means. At several of the temples, amputees have organized into small music groups, and take donations. Outside restaurants in the city, mobile booksellers ply everything from histories of the area and Cambodia to cheap copies ($4-5 USD) of Lonely Planet guides. And everywhere are the children. The young fellow at the right--who could not be more than 3 years old --was hawking postcards at Banteay Kdei.