City of Gods and Demons

Bringing up the rear on my itinerary in Southeast Asia was Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city (though it’s actually the fifth largest) that’s mostly known as the town that lives in the shadow of Angkor Wat. It was interesting traveling to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all back-to-back because you can really see what a difference international investment has made in the development of these countries. As I mentioned in my last post, the lack of financial support, from the U.S. in particular, in Laos has very visibly stunted growth, while Vietnam is much further down the road to recovery.

In summary, Cambodia is a country of high highs and low lows. The astounding architecture of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples honor their creators as much as they pay homage to the gods. On the other side of the spectrum, the brutality of the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge has left the country scarred and still far from a full recovery.

Cambodia is in an interesting situation. Siem Reap and Luang Prabang are very analogous cities in my mind; both are the tourism center of the country, though not the political and financial capital of either Cambodia or Laos, respectively. You don’t have to walk around Siem Reap for more than five minutes to see it’s a much more sophisticated and developed city than Luang Prabang.

Outside the city, not so much. I talked in my Laos post about the rural agricultural villages that surrounded Luang Prabang and their relative affluence given the circumstances. In Cambodia, this was not the case. People wealthy enough to own land seem to do pretty well, but the people who live in floating villages that cluster along the banks of Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap are not so lucky.

Exactly who lives in these communities and why is not totally clear to me, and it’s hard to know how many of them would want to move if given the opportunity. But suffice to say living conditions are not good. Only some of the houses have electricity using a car battery as a generator and there is no plumbing. A few families also own farmland but for most residents, their only property ownership extends to the edge of their floating houses, which are usually about 200-300 square feet where as many as 8 or 10 people will live, in addition to animals. Fishing is for the most part the only way to make a living and it’s not particularly reliable or profitable work.

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The obvious obstacle for the people who live here is that they have no real means to improve their situation by buying a piece of land. There are areas of the world more impoverished than here, but this village is probably the worst poverty I saw in all of Asia, though I didn’t travel to the particularly rough parts of India, so that’s not a completely fair assessment.

In a weird paradox, Laos as a country seems much poorer than Cambodia, but when it comes to the people who live outside the urban centers, people in Laos seemed to be much better off than the people in Cambodia.

Anyway, Angkor Wat is the big man on campus in Siem Reap and it lives up to its reputation. The entire Angkor Wat temple complex, which was built to serve as the capital of the Khmer Empire, covers about 500 acres and the central temple, the one you’ve most likely seen in pictures, is the largest religious building in the world. The enormous Buddhist temple was in fact first built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century and its function evolved over the next hundred years. The king who commissioned it, King Suryavarman II, was eventually buried there. There’s another temple outside the main tourists area that was basically the first attempt at Angkor Wat. The King didn’t like how small the moat was around the initial temple and thus ordered the construction of Angkor Wat.

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East entrance to Angkor Wat. The King would enter through the main gate on the west side.

Though of course it was never really lost, Angkor Wat was “discovered” by the French in the 19th century, at which point extensive restoration work commenced. Amazingly, the temple survived the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and has been left almost entirely untouched by thieves of every variety over the centuries.

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Building inside the inner temple wall, originally used as a library.
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Original wall carvings
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Macaque monkey, one of the temples many primate residents, eating an apple.

The central temple has the most “wow” factor. The scale is astounding and it has been responsibility restored, so you really get to see Angkor Wat as it would have been 900 years ago. That said, I actually liked some of the other temples in the complex even more.

Bayon sits directly north of Angkor Wat and was built by a different king sometime between 50 and 100 years after Angkor Wat. Bayon also has the strange mixture of Hindu and Buddhist markings and its most unique feature is the collection of carved stone faces that seem to come through the upper stone pillars, a la Han Solo in carbonite.

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This is actually outside Bayon, but how great is this facial expression

Ta Prohm is the other main attraction in the Angkor Wat complex, the one where scenes for Tomb Raider were filmed, as all the guides like to point out. This temple is by far the most overgrown of the three and the enormous tree roots that now encase much of the temple are almost more impressive than the original architecture.

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A sign inside Ta Prohm for all the fans of the passive voice out there

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Angkor Wat is best enjoyed in multiple ways. You’ll obviously want to explore the temple leisurely on foot, and you shouldn’t miss sunrise. There are two ponds near the west gate, the main entrance to the temple, where people gather to watch the sun come up behind Angkor Wat. The north pond is allegedly better because it’s slightly bigger and offers a clearer reflection of Angkor Wat. I don’t know why this is the general consensus but what I do now is that at the north pond, there were easily 600 people climbing on top of each other to see the sunrise while at the south pond, 100 yards away and offering the exact same view from the other corner of the perfectly symmetrical temple, there were more like 50 people. One of those moments to really make you wonder about the power (or lack thereof) of the human mind.

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The other thing to seriously consider in Siem Reap is a helicopter ride. The construction and density of the area surrounding Angkor Wat can make it difficult to see the whole temple at once, and the view of the landscape from above is pretty spectacular.

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Having never before ridden in a helicopter, I was pretty taken with the whole experience anyway and a 30-minute flight over Siem Reap is enough time to get a good sense of everything without feeling rushed.

One of the many, slightly less popular temples in the surrounding area is Banteay Srei. Predating Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei was built in 967 to honor the Hindu god Shiva. The red sandstone lights up beautifully under the hot Cambodian sun and though it can’t compete in size with Angkor Wat, the incredibly detailed carvings are unique to Banteay Srei.

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The aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime hangs heavy over Cambodia. The country’s population is incredibly young because about 20-30 percent of the older generation didn’t survive the genocide. Different estimates put the number of people killed in mass executions between 1.3 and 3 million, and another 1-2 million fled the country between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge were eventually stopped when the Vietnamese Army, spurred on by the flood of refugees that came into Vietnam, invaded the country in 1979 and drove the Khmer Rouge into hiding in the northern part of Cambodia.

They continued to operate in a weakened state in north Cambodia for another 10-15 years, with General Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, continuing to head a guerrilla force until he died in 1998. Though he was in poor health at the time, he died two days after it was announced that he would be turned over to an international court and tried, prompting suspicions that he committed suicide. His body was cremated and never inspected. Many former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still in power in Cambodia today and though the country is technically a democracy, the same prime minister has served for 31 years, so make of that what you will. His picture on Wikipedia is comically bad.

The Killing Fields memorial in Siem Reap is not as large or extensive as the one in Phnom Penh and when you drive up, it’s not immediately clear what the deal is. At one end is a temple, built to honor the souls of the people who died and to protect the area from the spirits of the dead. A gift shop and a collection of explanatory posters sit at the other side of the courtyard. In the middle is a small building where the skulls and bones of some of the victims are displayed.

Given that the government is still partially under the control of Khmer Rouge leaders, I was surprised by even the modest display in Siem Reap that didn’t mince words when it came to describing the horrors of the late 70s. Tragically, the violence speaks for itself, but it would still be nice to see the victims honored in a slightly more formal way. I have no complaints about what is there presently, and I’m amazed even that exists, but I think the people who died are owed something a bit more than what is in Siem Reap now.

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This is my one moment of weakness where I have to bitch about airlines, and I promise it won’t happen again. When I planned the Asia portion of this trip, there were several airlines along the way that didn’t give me much confidence. China Eastern Air, Druk Air in Bhutan, and the fairly sketchy Air KBZ in Myanmar were not airlines whose planes I was looking forward to boarding. Well, my bad, because the worst airline I’ve encountered in Asia by a mile so far (we’re not done yet) is Singapore Airlines, allegedly one of the best airlines in the world, and its regional carrier SuckAir. Their flight attendants, I will say, are excellent, but everyone from the check-in counter to the gate does his best to make sure the damage is done by the time you board the plane.

If you have full faith in TSA and airport security regulations in the U.S., then Asia is not the place for you. But what I appreciated about so many of the airlines in Asia was their intense practicality. No one in the row behind you? Leave your bag on the seat and don’t worry about the overhead bin. Flight running late? Push back the second everyone is on board, even when half the plane isn’t seated.

The best example I saw of this was on a flight from Bangkok to Delhi. First of all, they opened the door after they’d closed it to let on what had to be the world’s two most disheveled and disorganized families. Somehow one family had procured a 42-inch TV in the Bangkok airport and several shopping bags worth of stuff, and was busy shoving it all into any open space in the cabin as we were taxiing. Not 10 seconds before we took off was everyone seated and two of them held the TV in their laps for the whole flight.

On a landing in Bali on a Singapore Airlines flight, we landed so hard it felt like the landing gear snapped off, while every landing in the dilapidated planes in Myanmar was perfectly smooth. I don’t want to go too far in the other direction though. When I was looking into flights in Myanmar, one airline (which I didn’t use) wouldn’t allow you to select a specific day when making a booking. After you picked your origin city and destination, you selected what year you wanted to take this flight and what week of the month. You couldn’t even specify which month, let alone the day. So that was a complete joke, but this is my mea culpa, assorted small regional airlines of Asia. Despite appearances to the contrary, you seem to have your shit together.

I should say that while Singapore Airlines is terrible, the only thing worse is every American airline presently in existence, so they haven’t hit rock bottom yet.

Anyway, in the end, I think Cambodia turned out to be a good place to end my time in Southeast Asia. With the exception of maybe Thailand, every country in this part of the world has had a rough go of it for one reason or another the last 50-70 years, but the Khmer Rouge inflicted a unique level of evil on the Cambodian people. The ongoing land mine problem in the country is thanks to them, as is the widespread poverty. The reason for Cambodia’s strangely young population is horrific, but it’s also the silver lining; Siem Reap was energetic and full of young people. Almost everyone in the country has lost at least one family member to the Khmer Rouge, and though the loss and death is far from forgotten, the mood today is upbeat and positive in the face of a lot of challenges and a leader who definitely does not seem to have the country’s best interest at heart.

I’m now in Singapore, my final stop in Asia (how did that happen), which hasn’t exactly been blowing me away with its greatness. Before going back to Colorado for Christmas, I’ll be stopping for about a week in Hawaii, so if you’re a Kauai or a Maui enthusiast, now is your moment to be a hero and send me any recommendations (and thanks for the recommendations you’ve already sent!).

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