Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 25, 2008
Angkor being Khmer for “capital city,” it was not surprising to know that it was the largest ancient city with an urban sprawl of 3,000 square kilometers, almost half the size of New York City! 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 was not just the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty – it had its streets and shops and people – so was Angkor Archaeological Park not just the iconic structures of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. There were other surprises awaiting discovery aboard the $14/day tuktuk transport. As most major temples were spaced with considerable distances from one another, those between-temple rides were sightseeing sojourns from the back of a trusty tuktuk.
Monks in Deep Saffron
Angkor Wat had been converted from a Hindu temple into a Buddhist one for centuries now. It was not a merely a monument for tourists but 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-eagled to form a cool canopy, giving respite from that severe Cambodian sun. Like the ancient temples, they evoked ancient times, before much of the country’s rainforest had been subjected to the Khmer Rouge’s unbridled deforestation.
Cambodia was not just a haven for archaeological types but also those of ornithological persuasion. Aside from temple-hopping, bird-watching was another worthwhile activity as the country was home to a variety of birds, both passerines and water birds. A flock of them would hover around the towers of Angkor Wat. Panhandling monkeys likewise emerged from the woods, expecting treats from promenading tourists.
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 were as conspicuous as they were mysterious. My tuktuk driver could not explain what they were built for. I imagined the towers were strung together by ropes and agile apsara (nymphs) gracefully balancing on them, prancing from one prasat to another.
Rows of stalls selling everything from purses to paintings were 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 translated as “royal bath.” I was incredulous at first. The baray was a tad too big for one person to bathe in, royal or otherwise. I could believe the irrigation theory more, but they were built for ancient god-kings. It had not dried up 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 was 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 were stripped bare, pillaged by foreign invaders and pilfered for generations, but the facades had been standing for a millennium.
The Khmer People
Of course, there were the Khmer people, young and old, mostly vendors and peddlers. I could only imagine their ineffable pride for their heritage and history. After all, they were the descendants of the great Khmer people that built these wonderful temples still extant today.
I wondered if they were as awed as the foreigners who came from far and wide to behold Angkor. I wondered if they saw Angkor beyond the tourist dollars it brought, if Angkor had any bearing in their lives, not just in their livelihood. I wondered if the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their present poverty had cut them off from their glorious past, or if they saw Angkor as their glorious hope.