We took a quick walk around town that afternoon, but we were feeling a bit grumpy and overwhelmed from our encounters with corruption and poverty earlier that day, and we had a hard time appreciating the city. Siem Reap is the gateway city to Cambodia's most famous national treasure and tourist attraction: the ancient and magnificent temples of the Khmer empire, which stretched across most of southeast Asia for the ninth through the fourteenth centuries. We were here--along with hundreds (thousands?) of other tourists to explore the temples. But first, we needed some rest. Frankly, Siem Reap felt a bit like a wild west town. Cows plodded, dirt bikes zoomed, and litter blew along dusty streets between drab concrete structures. We holed up in hotel, watched some TV, and went to bed. The next day found us with considerably better moods and more excitement about what Cambodia had to offer.
We spent three full days in Angkor Wat. The first day we hired a Tuk-tuk driver to drive us around to temples that were too far for biking. We saw a really neat spot that has images carved into the riverbed so the water flows right over the carvings (in the wet season). It is called "river of a thousand lingas" or something like that. Lingas are phallic carvings and the riverbed really was covered in many worn down cylinders. There were other carvings there too--people and animals and spiritual beings.
As we were heading out into the countryside (about 50 km from Siem Reap) we passed many families out and about, all dressed up. It turns out it was a holiday, Bonn Pchum Ben.
Families gather to honor and care for the spirits of their ancestors. We saw lots of women in traditional dress carrying food and children on everything from motobikes to tractors. I am sure there were some great feasts that afternoon (our guidebook says the three most important things in Cambodia are "family, food, and festivals"). Then we visited a few other more traditional temples. They mostly were mountain shaped with lots of steps and detailed carvings. The temples were built around the 12th century so it is all very impressive just based on sheer scale and the effort it must have taken to hand carve everything. The main temple of Angkor Wat is huge.
It has a moat that is 190 meters wide and in a rectangle that is 1.5 by 1.3 kilometers! After crossing the moat there is a tall stone wall that surrounds the island, and inside that is a large multi-tiered building. The building doesn't fill the interior, but it is impressive nonetheless. It was hard to capture the scale in photos, or as Kevin said, “it doesn't fit in the camera.” We visited the temple that was the set for the Tomb Raider movie—when Angelina Jolie falls through a hole…? I haven’t actually seen the movie.
There are dozens of temples in this area of Cambodia and even though we spent days exploring, I get the sense that we didn’t even scratch the surface. Some of the highlights were:
Angkor Wat: sheer size and audacity!
Ta Prohm: giant trees taking over the ruins (and the set of Tomb Raider).
Banteay Srei: beautiful pink sandstone and very intricate carvings.
Bayon: giant, peaceful faces carved into the temple’s towers.
Preah Khan: huge complex of structures, this felt more like an ancient city than the other temples.
After the day with the Tuk-tuk driver, we rented bikes and toured around the "park" ourselves. Between dodging crazy motorbike drivers, adorable yet sad little kids selling things, other tourists, and lots of humanity, we saw many beautiful temples and glimpses of rural Cambodian life. It was an experience. We both were affected by some of the kids we saw and met. Every time we stopped the bikes I was accosted by "lady, lady...you want to buy (cold water...scarf...t-shirt...chintzy tourist junk)?"
Sometimes it was hard to remain firm while saying no, especially when it was a little kid, usually a girl. When I would say no enough times that the believed I wasn't going to buy something the younger ones would change tactics: "one dollar so I can go school."
Theoretically school is free, but sometimes teachers take bribes for better seats in class, more attention, and better education because their classrooms are so full. When we would pull into an area with little roadside restaurants the women tending them would literally run to us with menus, trying to catch our business before the 6 other women selling the same food did. Really it all seemed desperate and sad and wore on our spirits. There seems to be no one answer to what to do about the little kids--I don't want to encourage them to stay on the streets, but I don't think they have very many options. I am sure we seem so wealthy to them, and from their perspective we should be handing out dollars left and right because we are rich.
Over all it was a good three days. People often would yell out hello as we went by just to be friendly or interact with us--I think children in particular find us interesting because we are white and they can practice their English with us. I am slowly getting used to a celebrity-like status.
We were in Siem Reap for a total of six days so we started to get the sense of the town. Most of the streets are dirt, or if they were paved it was a long time ago and I could hardly tell. There is a busy western-geared downtown with coffee shops, restaurants, and travel agencies as well as a souvenir night market and a “real” day market. The day market has the usual selection of vegetables, fruits, unidentifiable meats, household wares, clothes and more. Most locals do most of their shopping at the markets. There are tuk-tuk drivers on every corner fishing for business. Kevin won a bet one evening by guessing closest to the number of solicitations we would receive on our 10 minute walk from the town center to our guesthouse—we were asked 8 times if we wanted a ride! I don’t know how they make enough money, there are so many of them. Our guesthouse was quite nice; friendly people and comfortable clean rooms. For six nights, one dinner, breakfast every morning, and the bus tickets to the Battambang, the total bill was $66. Great deal. Cambodia uses the dollar most of the time. There are no coins and for things less than a dollar the riel is used--it comes in denominations of 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000 and maybe others. 4300 riel= 1 dollar.
Besides visiting the temples we saw the landmine museum--a interesting place created by a man who placed many landmines as a child in the Khmer Rouge army, and has spent years hunting them and deactivating them, as well as starting an orphanage/children's home for families that have been affected by landmines. We visited the Artisan’s De Angkor--an organization aimed at helping locals create and sell authentic Cambodian crafts.
They have a silk farm where we learned all about the silk making process (amazing!). We visited a leather shop that had stingray leather and wallets made out of baby crocodiles. We saw a traditional Cambodian dance performance. The Apsara dancers do lots of hand motions that symbolize specific things and part of their training is to increase their flexibility in their hands so they can arch their fingers backwards. The dances and costumes were neat. Apsaras are carved into the stone all over Angkor and I think they are called “heavenly dancers” keeping an eye on things.
McNeill and I arrived in Siem Reap on Thursday, September 17, after an absolutely crazy day of travel that involved dodging several scams as we traveled to and crossed the Thai-Cambodia border. We arrived in Siem Reap in the early afternoon, tired physically (we had woken up at 4:40 that morning to catch our bus) and mentally (from negotiating bribe amounts with the Cambodian border officials and taxi prices with the border town taxi mafia).