Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 25, 2008
Angkor means city. In fact, Angkor is the largest ancient city with an urban sprawl of 3,000 square kilometers, almost half the size of New York City! Come to think of it, a thousand years ago, Angkor must have been the NYC of that era, what with its kingdom’s power and influence on Southeast Asia and its massive monuments and temple-mountains forming that uniquely jagged Khmer skyline.
Just as NYC is not just the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty – it has its streets and shops and people – so is Angkor Archaeological Park not just the iconic structures of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. There are other surprises awaiting your discovery aboard your $14/day tuktuk transport. As most major temples are spaced with considerable distances from one another, those between-temple rides are sightseeing sojourns in themselves. Here are some of those sights from the back of a trusty tuktuk.
Monks in Deep Saffron
Angkor Wat has been converted from a Hindu temple into a Buddhist one for centuries now. It is not a merely a monument for tourists; it is a functional temple. Emerging from their morning prayers, monks in deep saffron robes huddled beside the pool to chat and gawk back at the tourists ogling them. I hastily did a pap-shot of one before he looked at my direction. They were friendly though and would usually allow their photos taken – without any fee.
Flora and Fauna
Towering trees spread-eagle to form a cool canopy, giving respite from that severe Cambodian sun. Like the ancient temples, they hearken back to ancient times, before much of the country’s rainforest has been subjected to the Khmer Rouge’s unbridled deforestation.
Cambodia is not just a haven for archaeological types, but also those of ornithological persuasion. Aside from temple-hopping, bird-watching is another worthwhile activity you can do in Cambodia. The country is home to a variety of birds, both passerines and waterbirds. A flock of them would hover around the towers of Angkor Wat. Monkeys likewise emerge from the woods, expecting treats from promenading tourists. They reminded me of panhandling primates by the roadside in Subic in the Philippines.
Traversing Angkor Thom in search of a restroom, I noticed a line of separate towers, a dozen of them, sticking out on a meadow. Called Prasat Suor Prat, or Towers of the Rope Dancers, these curious structures are as conspicuous as they are mysterious. My tuktuk driver could not explain what they were built for. I imagined the towers were strung together by ropes and agile apsaras (nymphs) gracefully balancing on them, prancing from one prasat to another.
Rows of stalls selling everything from purses to paintings are strategically located in the middle of Angkor Thom. After taking in the sublime Angkor Wat and Bayon, we needed to get our feet on the ground and focus on some mundane concerns like shopping and eating. We had a mountain of bland yellow rice (bai, in Khmer) sprinkled with pieces of carrots and slivers of meat. Later I learned that food was seen by the average impoverished Khmer merely as tummy-fillers, not pleasurable treats. Ambiance-wise, there seemed to be a beach vibe going – colorful rows of restaurants and souvenir shops, sandy soil, thatched roof, punishing heat, and white tourists in tank tops. Sadly, no body of water in sight other than…
…a baray, a man-made reservoir, such as Srah Srang, believed to be the king’s bathroom. The name means “royal bath.” I was incredulous at first. The baray is a tad too big for one person to bathe in, royal or otherwise. I could believe the irrigation theory more, but we’re talking about ancient god-kings, so who knows? It still holds water to this day. On a multi-tiered landing, I saw a dog, a live one, standing beside sculptures of mythical beasts and naga balustrades that flanked the landing.
Ruins by the Roadside
Pockets of tiny ruins can be seen by the roadside, vestiges of a bustling ancient city. This is Angkor, after all. We stopped by a picturesque one that had a tree straddling a cyclopean opening of stone slabs. Was this part of a house? Perhaps a grave? What archaeological treasures it must have contained that will forever be a mystery? Alas, surely they have been stripped bare, pillaged by foreign invaders and pilfered for generations, but the facades still stand as they have for a millennium.
The Khmer People
Of course, there are the Khmer people, young and old. They are mostly vendors and peddlers. I could only imagine their ineffable pride for their heritage and history. After all, they are the descendants of the great Khmer people that built these wonderful temples still extant today.
I wonder if they are as awed as the foreigners who come from far and wide to behold Angkor. I wonder if they see Angkor beyond the tourist dollars it brings, if Angkor has any bearing in their lives, not just in their livelihood. I wonder if the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their present poverty have cut them off from their glorious past, or if they see Angkor as their glorious hope.