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Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Copyright Steve and Ramona Boone. Gliding over the triple canopy jungle to land at Siem Reap airport, I couldn’t take my eyes off the endless green beauty of the country. I was finally reaching Cambodia—and the fantastic temple complex of Angkor Wat. I’d always been fascinated by these temples hidden deep in the jungle, and admired archaeologists who endured snakes and disease and who-knows-what-other nightmare conditions to see Angkor Wat first-hand. It’s so much easier now. Customs is really fast. $20 for a visa (plus $1 for a photo) and out in twenty minutes. We’d arrived from Bangkok in late November, the air was warm and humid. Everyone was smiling, including our guide who’s holding a welcome sign with our name in huge letters. For those on their own, the airport is 6km from town and a ride downtown costs $1US on a motorcycle taxi or $5US by auto taxi. Amazing chaos surrounded us as we drove out of the airport! Bike riders swarmed everywhere. Several riders headed to market had huge pigs strapped on the back, squealing for all their worth! Huge water buffalo lumbered alongside our car, seemingly oblivious to all the commotion around them, despite the swats from their barefoot drivers. Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, whose Angkor Empire reached a peak of power between the 10th and 14th centuries, extending over much of what we know as Southeast Asia. Eventually Cambodia lost much of its territory and became part of French Indochina in 1887. Cambodia gained independence in 1953, but in 1975 the Communist Khmer Rouge took over and began the infamous Killing Fields. They ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns; over 1.5 million displaced people died from execution, enforced hardships, or starvation. It’s sobering to realize that was 20% of the population. Especially hard hit were the educated – doctors, teachers, monks. Even people wearing glasses were thought to be subversive! The final elements of the Khmer Rouge didn’t surrender until 1999, finally enabling peaceful elections in 2003.
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Angkor Wat

Since we’d arrived early in the morning we took advantage of the (relatively) cool morning before crowds arrive to head immediately to Angkor Wat, Cambodia's greatest tourist attraction. Angkor means ‘holy city’ or ‘capital city.’ We were prepared with sunscreen, hat, Deet and bottled water. We drove to the visitor’s entrance and purchased a three-day entrance pass for $40 per person, plus $1 US for the photo on the ID (prevents theft and fraud). You can actually do a day trip from Bangkok if you must, but promise yourself an extended return trip. We drove through a lovely forest, like New York City’s Central Park without the footpaths. Roadside vendors were just setting up shop, and a few families had spread out blankets for picnics. I’d seen photos of Angkor Wat, but was totally unprepared for the view when we rounded the curve. What a magnificent sight! Spread before us – surrounded by a 570ft by 4mile moat called a bayar – was the wondrous Angkor Wat. Five enormous pillars rose out of the stonework as majestic tribute to the stonemasons. This is the world’s largest religious structure; the whole site is over 160 square miles and is still occupied by monks who burn incense in front of saffron-clad Buddhist statues. Cross the causeway and admire the undulating stone serpents, called naga, that flank the sides. Don’t miss Angkor Wat’s most famous stone carving, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, ‘Milk of Immortality’. It’s a magnificent stone-carved bas-relief wall mural, portraying a battle between gods and demons with legions of soldiers, fish and crocodiles, all churning up creation. Here you’ll see the birth of the Apsaras, celestial nymphs that will dance in your dreams.

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Ta Prohm

Explore to your heart’s content, climbing steep terraces for incredible views of the whole complex. Smile back at the giant stone faces in ‘Bayon’ style that are found in great number and exemplify the style found in all archeological sites of the period. Most of the Greater Angkor Park was abandoned in the 15th century and the temples were gradually suffocated by jungle overgrowth. Angkor Wat, though, continued to be occupied by Buddhist monks who preserved it in wonderful condition. The site became the source of scholarly interest in the late-19th century after the publication of Voyage à Siam et dans le Cambodge by French naturalist Henri Mouhot. Finally, efforts were undertaken to clear away the jungle vegetation that threatened to completely destroy the monuments, and restoration continues today. Today Angkor Wat is the centerpiece of the UNESCO World Heritage site established in 1992 as the Greater Angkor Archaeological Park. The 100 or so temples are the sacred remains of what was once a much larger administrative and religious center, and were built between the 9th and 13th centuries to glorify a succession of Khmer kings. What you see at Angkor Wat is a centuries old struggle between jungle vegetation and restorers, where happily restorers are winning. Go back in time and visit exotic Ta Prohm, where you’ll see what what the struggle’s been all about. Left unrestored, strangler figs, banyon and kapok trees rip through the complex, their huge roots flowing lava-like through the stonework, creating a landscape from another planet. Roots crawl over, under, and around boulders the size of automobiles upending everything in their path. Still, the Apsara dancers blithely continue their performance on bas-relief murals, oblivious to the destruction around them. Joss stick incense permeates the air, tribute to the god supporting the ‘bayars’ – those huge water reservoirs that surround the temple and enabled three wheat harvests per year, an amazing societal achievement by the ancient Khmer kingdoms. We clamored over boulders strewn helter-skelter by the roots, walking through dark, damp stone rooms and intricate labyrinths - really eerie.

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Temple Spire

Head back to Siem Reap to reduce sensory overload. The main street is a two-lane dirt road, lined with shops, restaurants and motorcycle taxis. This is the major tourist base for the viewing the area, only 5km from the Angkor complex. It has all the creature comforts, including internet cafes, $1US for an hour. Pick up a used book at the Lazy Mango Bookstore and spend a leisurely hour or two reading it at the Only One, a French restaurant opposite the Old Market. This French-owned eatery offers a fantastic wine and cheese selection. The friendly owner sat and regaled us with tales of old Siem Reap. There’s also a booming hotel construction trade. The top of the line is Raffles International D’Angkor. Stop by for a glass of champagne in their famous Elephant Bar and you’ll be surrounded by photos from Jackie Kennedy’s visit. Very chic. Our hotel, Ta Prohm, was terrific – perfect location, great breakfast, wonderful service, blessed air-conditioning and hot showers. A block away is the Old Market, Phsar Chas, a great place to buy crafts and books as well as fruit. And next door is the Spicy Spa – foot massages are a specialty! Early each morning we’d wander through town and see the Buddhist monks in their saffron orange robes walk through town, standing silently before each shop, holding empty bowls ready to be filled by the devout. Buddhism is practiced by 97% of the people. Be sure to visit modern day Cambodians in two favorite pursuits, fishing and silk-making. For fishing, go out to Tongle Sap, the largest inland body of freshwater in Southeast Asia. It’s linked to the Mekong River and during the rainy season the Mekong rises, flooding the Tongle Sap from 3000 sq. kilometers to 7500 square kilometers. In the dry season the reverse happens, water levels fall and the lake waters drain back to the Mekong. Take a longtail (so named for the ‘long’ rear pole holding the motorcycle engine underwater) boat for a cruise. You’ll board the boat at one of Asia’s largest fishing villages. Then you’ll head out to the Lake passing stilted homes (complete with pigs and chickens fenced in below), then houseboats- there’s one with a Red Cross signifying the hospital – and them sampans bobbing with the tides.

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Tongle Sap

Early each morning we’d wander through town and see the Buddhist monks in their saffron orange robes walk through town, standing silently before each shop, holding empty bowls ready to be filled by the devout. Buddhism is practiced by 97% of the people. Be sure to visit modern day Cambodians in two favorite pursuits, fishing and silk-making. For fishing, go out to Tongle Sap, the largest inland body of freshwater in Southeast Asia. It’s linked to the Mekong River and during the rainy season the Mekong rises, flooding the Tongle Sap from 3000 sq. kilometers to 7500 square kilometers. In the dry season the reverse happens, water levels fall and the lake waters drain back to the Mekong. Take a longtail (so named for the ‘long’ rear pole holding the motorcycle engine underwater) boat for a cruise. You’ll board the boat at one of Asia’s largest fishing villages. Then you’ll head out to the Lake passing stilted homes (complete with pigs and chickens fenced in below), then houseboats- there’s one with a Red Cross signifying the hospital – and them sampans bobbing with the tides. Afterwards, on your way back to town, stop at a silk-making center. These have sprung up with international aid to help Cambodians export market. Mulberry bushes are carefully tended, and the leaves fed to the silk worms. Dyes are mixed to produce radiant rainbow hues, and the silk fabric manufactured is truly luxurious. Finish your trip giving to the children of Cambodia, visiting the children’s hospital (Jaayavarman VII), founded in 1974 by a Swiss doctor, Beat Richter. He was pushed out by the Khmer Rouge and asked to return by the King in 1991. This ‘2003 Swiss Man of the Year’ asks for donations of blood (from the young) and money (from the older) – whatever people can give. He treats Cambodian children free of charge and is making inroads into the child mortality rate – currently at 12%. Don’t miss his fundraising ‘Beata Cello” concerts on Saturday night. Cambodians are warm and generous people, with a ready smile and eagerness to help tourists enjoy their enchanting country. They’re fond of explaining why they smile so much, it’s the ‘three delights’: eating fish, taking a shower, and washing your feet, all of which we’d experienced. Remembering these, and what an amazing exotic experience you’ve had visiting today’s Cambodia, will surely make you smile, too.

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