Sunday, July 10, 2011

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat (June 29-30, 2011)

Angkor Wat is amazing, in all aspects.   When you take this temple and all the surrounding temples and palaces into consideration, what the ancient Khmer people were able to accomplish overwhelms the modern mind.  The Mayan ruins are also amazing, but pales in comparison.  It’s also amazing how touristy this area has become in a little over a decade.  It wasn’t that long ago that Cambodia wasn’t even on the tourist path and anyone who could, was getting out of the country, with refugees overloading neighboring lands.  Luckily, the Khmer Rouge in their reign of terror and destruction left Angkor alone, feeling they owed some allegiance to these ancient people.  Having heard so much about the temple complex, I chose to make the most of my time there and begin my day at Angkor Wat before sunrise.

I stayed at the Golden Bannana in Siem Reap, a wonderful bed and breakfast, who actually sent someone to knock on my door at 4:30 AM to make sure that I was awake before heading to the temples at 4:45 AM.  A few minutes later, when I walked out into the humid morning air, my driver was waiting.  Riding in the carriage attached to his motorcycle, we race toward the temples.  Again, I had the feeling I was on a chariot as our drivers jockeyed for position.  From the amount of traffic at this time of the morning, I realized I wasn’t going to be alone.   We stopped outside of the gate where I had to purchase a ticket to the temple complex (it’s $20 a day or $40 for three days and they prefer American dollars for to pay Cambodian would take a thick wad of bills).  Also interesting is that you get a “pass” for the temples that includes your photo (and keeps you giving your ticket to someone else).  Numerous times throughout the day I was required to produce it.  With ticket in hand, we headed one to the temple.  My driver dropped me off in front and suggested that after sunrise, I tour the Angkor Wat complex, and then we’d go back to the Golden Banana for breakfast before coming back and touring some of the other temples.
I headed into the area near the temple, had my passed check and I was going through the first gate, was told to come this way and toward a Buddha.  Incense and candles were burning and the guy started to instruct me on how to pray and show homage.  Torn between not wanting to be insensitive to his faith and my own beliefs that tend shy away from such practices, I tried to be reverent, hoping I’d learn a little about this faith which is a part of the purpose of this trip.  I actually learned a lot there, but it had little to do with Buddhism.  There was a woman next to me who was finishing up her homage to Buddha, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye there was a silk cloth folded on at the foot of Buddha and they opened it and on top was a $10 bill and suggested then that she also made a contribution.  She did.  I tried to get away, but the guy first said that I needed to make a contribution to show respect.  Remembering that I had some Thai baths in my pocket, I decided to pull out that wad and give them a 20 baht bill, which is too small to convert into other currency and would make a statement…  When I pulled out my Thai money, he immediately saw a 1000 baht bill and suggestion that was appropriate.  I told him he was crazy (that’s 30 dollars) and pulled a 20 baht bill out and dropped it.  “That’s not enough,” he said,” so I reached down to grab it, saying “if you don’t want it I’ll take it back.”  At this point, I was making a scene and destroying his scam, so he pushed me away saying something about bad karma. 
Throughout Angkor, there are such scams, most of which asks for a dollar or two, this one at the gate in the darkness of the morning, when people were still asleep was going for the big bucks. 

Walking on through the gate, I joined up with a hoard of my closest friends to watch the sunrise.  The placed sounded like Babel, the morning after.  All kinds of languages were spoken as people stood looking at the sky and a ruin and hoping for a brilliant sunrise.  The sunrise wasn’t brilliant (maybe that was my bad karma), it was cloudy, but the sky did turn a nice shades of pink.   After the sun was up, I headed across the causeway and into the temple proper.  Angkor means city and wat means temple.  This is a massive complex with several sets of walls and many different temples.  Throughout the complex, one sees evidence of both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs (the temple started as a Hindu temple, later a Buddhist king came to power and he attempted to cover up some of the Hindu stuff and make it more Buddhist, then later there was another Hindu king who disfigured some of the Buddhas…  Today, surprisingly, there are few Buddha statues in the temple complex.  The Hindu carvings, telling of the legends of the Indus people, can still be seen around the walls of the complex.

 Again, like the temples in Thailand, there is no way to capture the massiveness of Angkor Wat or many of the other sites around Siem Reap  After a couple of hours at Angkor Wat, I met back with Changa, my driver.  We went back to the hotel where I had breakfast.  At a little after nine, we were off again.  Our first stop was “Angkor Thom (which means “large city”) which is behind Angkor Wat and much more massive. We entered by the south gate, but before going in, I walked over to a small temple (Phnom Bakheng) which looked appealing.  No one was around and I climbed to the top and enjoyed the view in private.  Then, I entered Angkor Thom, walking through the gate and began to explore what had been a massive city with temples and a palace and the much heralded “elephant terrace’, among other ruins showing the Khmer people at the height of their culture.  I spent two hours at Angkor Thom, before we moved on to Ta Thominanon, Cha Suy Tauota, then Tao Keo.  Afterwards, Changa and I went to lunch.

Near the headwaters for the Tonle Sap
Notice the phnom in the background
On the last day of June, I had seen enough temples for a while, so I decided to head out into the Cambodian countryside.   In his book, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux criticizes much of the “relief work” done in Africa, saying that after fifty years of aid, the continent is in worse shape today than in 1960.   The metaphor for much of this aid work is the Landover or similar ATVs.  Only commercial safaris and NGOs can afford such vehicles and, at least from my reading of his book, he felt such vehicles creates a barrier between those trying to do aid work and those who are in need of such aid.  That said, I headed out into the Cambodian countryside with no ATV.  The bicycle that I’d gotten from the hotel (and this is my only complaint about the Golden Banana) was a “beater” even by Cambodian standards!  There is nothing like peddling through the countryside on a bike that you’re not sure will get you back home to generate conversation.  The bike was at least six inches too small and was a woman’s bike at that.  Had I been thinking, I would have not rented from the hotel and gone into town to rent t a more suitable bike.  At least I could have gotten one where I could have raised the seat enough to have pedaled comfortably (and not have to worry if the bike was road worthy).  As it was, riding around Cambodia with a beater school kids on their way to and from school or going home for lunch would peddle up beside me and practice their English for a few minutes before leaving me in their dust.   I rode it out into the fields, on a dam running through a rice paddy and no one thought anything about it.  Although a white guy, I was blending in.

A road through fields

This bike ride (which was a little over 30 kms), will be one of the highlights of the trip.  I rode out to where th e boats leave for the Tonle Sap Lake.  They were still doing boat tours, but the lake was so low that it impossible to get a boat to Phnom Penh (which had been my plan).  I’d been told they were running boats to Battambang and thought about trying to go there and then take the once a week train to Phnom Penh, but then those boats stopped running too and I later learned the train, which had just started back operating, wasn’t operational.  
Harvesting lotus

Boats for the Toule Sap

 The bike trip was my chance to see the upper reaches of the lake and to get away from it all for a day or two.  It was a good decision.   I got to see the contrast of Cambodian life.  At a small store, I watched the proprietor mix concrete by hand for a ramp he was building.  Next door, a cement truck was dumping it’s load into a cement pump truck that was then pumping the concrete to a second floor slab.  The contrasts are amazing.  I took a log break for lunch at a restaurant that was on stilts (much of this area is on stilts for at the end of the rainy season, this area is all flooded).  At the end of the rainy season, when everything is saturated and the Mekong filled with snow melt from Tibet, the Mekong River actually reverses course and instead of flowing into the sea, the water comes up into the Tonle Sap Lake.  The rainy season was just beginning, it’d been another month, I was told, before the lake began to rise.  I ate rice and vegetables with pork that was served with hot tea.  They had hammocks strung out in an open air pavilion (under a thatch straw roof) and after eating, I napped.  Enjoying the breeze, I listened to the birds sing, a dog barking in the distance as well as the on and off sounds of a hammer next door.  I could have done without the latter, but that restaurant didn’t have any customers!

Coming back, I got off the main road and followed the canal on the other side, through an area off the tourist path.  It was both beautiful and I felt blessed.  I passed a well donated by a man in Virginia Beach, saw fish drying on racks and numerous grasshopper traps (yep, they eat ‘em) as well as visited temples that weren’t on the tourist circuit. 
After I got back to the Golden Banana, I took another swim.  Then a thunderstorm came up and I waited it out before heading into town to Indian food for dinner.  The proprietor’s two children entertained me throughout the meal (the oldest was six and was speaking four languages)!   Afterwards, I wrote in my blog and then crashed for the evening, knowing that late the next morning I’d be taking a bus to Phnom Penh.   During the night, it rained and I slept well except for a lone dream early in the morning.  I’d come back to Butler (where I had been a student pastor assistant while in Seminary) to take over as pastor at Covenant.  Steve was there, but he was leaving and I was to preach.  But I couldn’t find my sermon, then I couldn’t find my suit and I was wondering if I could preach with just my robe over a t-shirt.  Then Steve told me he could preach one more week, getting me off the hook.  Although I hadn’t been thinking much about work while traveling, which is the purpose of a sabbatical, the dream of not having the sermon ready is a common one. 

I should say something about the name of the town, Siem Reap.  It meaning in Khmer is something along the lines of "Siam defeated."  Cambodia has always been a pawn between more powerful kingdoms of Thailand (Siam) and Vietnam.  The exception to this was during the heyday of Angkor Wat, but that was a thousand years ago!


  1. I didn't know you preached. How did I miss that?

    Some friends of mine went to Angkor Wat a few years ago and I got to see some fantastic photos of it.

  2. So I take it you didn't eat any grasshoppers? I've read a lot about this part of the world but I can imagine it wouldn't prepare me to actually see it.

  3. Cambodia is an interesting place and there is a wide range interesting activities and places to explore. Prepare your sermon, before the next dream:). Nice write.

  4. Some years ago, National Geographic had a really interesting article about the Khmer Kingdom and Ankor Wat. For awhile (+/- 100 years), it was top dog in SE Asia. It was very informative and really showed how countries/empires come and and go.


  5. You write with such wonderful description that I can just imagine what it is like. So interesting and great pics. :)

  6. Here is a travel hint that I picked up long ago when touring corrupt nations. Pack all your big bills in a money belt and tuck it away out of sight and just keep your small bills in a wallet or more easily accessible place. That way you never flash big bills like at the temple and if you get robbed or stopped for a bribe, they get a handful of small bills and are usually happy and you still have some money left. Once I spend some of my small bills, I find a place to discretely remove a large bill from my money belt to add to my wallet. It also comes in handy when buying souvenirs or the like when I hold up my small bills and tell them this is all I have.

  7. Hello Sage, your stories and travels are indeed very interesting, however, please be careful and don't get too obsessed with finding the beaten path like most Westerns do. This attitude is just a display of "holier than thou". Think about it, if Asians come to find places off the beaten path in America, and say they go to Omer, Michigan, you would probably be laughing your head off at them and think they should check their temperature. It works both way actually. Meanwhile, good luck and be blessed.

  8. Except for the huge temple cities, the areas you visited during this post seemed to run at a much slower pace and you even sounded more relaxed.
    Oh yeah, wherever there are tourists, there will be people more than willing to take their money by any means necessary.