Thursday, 19 January 2012

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat, an Overdose of Superlatives

We took a pretty painless 5 hour bus ride to Siem Reap and were warmly greeted by Baruch, Kim, Issac and Alexandra. They had arranged for a guide and minivan to take all us to Angkor Wat fairly early the next morning and we were all pretty excited to be going.

“Angkor Wat” is but one of the many Angkor Temples that are described as being at the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Cambodia.  Stretching for over 400 square kilometers the Angkor site is far more than a single complex or even a single city.  The area includes many lost cities and temples that were at different points capitals of the once mighty Khmer Empire.  It is the most important archeological site in all of South East Asia and amongst the most important archeological sites in the world. 

Even the kids were quite blown away by the magnitude of it all.  There are not enough superlatives to describe it.  From the jungle setting to the perfect symmetry of construction to the stunning carvings that seem to adorn every inch of temple walls to the multitude of statues that appear around every corner, it is truly something to behold and it well deserves the status that it holds as the main drawing card for tourists to Cambodia.

Since time is a luxury that we have on this trip we decided to purchase 7 day passes and we had absolutely no regrets doing so.  We spent the first two days with a guide and this helped us to ensure that we saw the majority of the most significant temples and were provided with great insight along the way.  The added benefit of having a van also meant that we were able to travel to some of the more remote sites. These two days were jam packed and although we enjoyed them the whirlwind nature of the typical tourist site seeing agenda left us a little dizzy and even a little uncertain of everything that we really saw.  Additional confirmation that travelling slow and perhaps seeing less actually helps us to see more. 

Pouring through the pictures and trying to decide which ones to post was a bit of a daunting task.   The pictures truly don’t portray the scope of what was created by the incredible Khmer Empire.  It may not be as ancient as many other ruins throughout the world but it is certainly as impressive as any.  In addition, being the largest religious site on the globe is more than just noteworthy.

Rob & Baruch at Angkor Thom, just one of the many “cities” within the site.  It was home to over a million people as far back as 1200.  In comparison, London was home to only 50,000 at that time.

The pictures below are from Banteay Srei.  It was one of the smaller sites but one of the most beautiful with incredibly intricate carvings everywhere.  It is thought to have been built by women for women - no wonder it is so lovely.

The shots below were taken at Ta Prohm, The Tomb Raider temple. No Angelina Jolie sightings while we were there.

After our first two days of guided Angkor Rob and I rented bikes left the kids to sleep in and went exploring on our own.  To be on decent bikes after months of not riding was terrific and to be on bikes spinning around one of the most stunning sites on the planet was unforgettable.  We could not stop smiling.  We found paths that we seemed to share only with locals, we stopped when we wanted, saw temples previously bypassed, revisited some of the sites that we had whizzed by with the guide and we seemed to find a new favorite Angkor spots at every turn. 

The next day we all got into the action on the bikes.  As we weaved through the tuk tuk, motorbike, van and car traffic leaving Siem Reap and headed towards the site I again thought of how we have been stretched on this journey.  When the kids were little I affectionately referred to Rob as Elmer Safety.  His near obsession with making sure that every seat belt was done up so tightly that the kids could barely move is but one example of where this nick name came from.  Yet here we were, hair blowing in the wind and heads helmet free, setting off in the midst of Asian traffic (which is nothing like our own), four kids sandwiched in between the adults, simply another day of adventure.   (It really helped our boys to see Alexandra and particularly Issac who is only 8 so seemingly confident in facing the challenge.) 

Yes, we were out of the traffic when the shot below was taken....

It turned out to be another marvelous day at the temples, the best day yet.  The kids spent a good portion of it playing tag within the ruins of the “Kleangs”, ancient Palaces surrounded by jungle on one side and the Great Ancient City of Angkor Thom on the other. Tag in this setting, how cool is that? It was awesome to have additional kids to play with and to see them popping in and out of doorways and windows and jumping from stone to stone.  The luxury of playing such an every day game in a place that is far far removed from our own everyday life is something that the kids will definitely not forget.

Look carefully, at the two pictures below, it was a little scary watching the kids run around on top of the walls like that  but there were no mishaps so all was well. 

In between tag games we biked to a temple that we had missed with the guide but that Rob and I had visited on our bike ride and wanted to share.  It turned out to be one of our favourites…..

Preah Khan

 Beng Melea, the Wild One

The day after our bike adventure we decided to hire a vehicle and venture to another more remote temple, Beng Mealea.  The drive there was as interesting as the actual site and we were reminded yet again that the journey itself is often as rewarding as the destination. Our driver took us on back roads through his village and we were able to stop along the way to see families and neighbors working together to build houses, sugar cane being made into candy and kids running through fields happily flying garbage bag kites.  

Beng Mealea has been pretty much left to the jungle with tree roots and vines enveloping many of the stone walls.  Although we didn’t find a spot for tag to equal the Kleangs, we still had a fine day.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat 

On one of our other days in Siem Reap Rob and I rode the bikes out to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.  The sunrise was not really a highlight as throngs of tourists wrestled to find the perfect place to take the perfect Angkor shot.  What was lovely was that shortly after the sun came up most people left and we had Angkor Wat nearly to ourselves for a little while, now that was special.

Siem Reap – More than just Angkor

One of the non temple things we did during our time in Siem Reap was to a stop at the Land Mine Museum. It left an impression that will not easily be forgotten.  The museum and adjoining orphanage was started by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, Aki Ra.   We learned how one day he would be playing with his buddies and the next he would be trying to kill them.  His life as a soldier started when he was 10.  By the time he was Fearon’s age (14) he had become an expert at laying land mines and had killed too many to count.  He eventually defected from the Khmer Rouge and joined the Vietnamese army.  He watched his country and his family be torn apart but he survived and wanted to do something to rebuild.  He became an expert at removing land mines.   Land mines continue to kill and maim thousands every year and he continues to work to remove them.  He started the land mine museum, school and orphanage to educate others and to help victims.   Children who have been directly affected by the mines live at the orphanage and attend the school.  The stories of all the children were posted on the walls and I don’t think any of us had dry eyes as we read what the kids had written.

Throughout the trip we have seen a lot of evidence of the impact of war and we have learned a lot about the atrocities inflicted by the various sides.  The Land Mine Museum was however, different.  Here we were introduced to a man who openly spoke of the unspeakable things he had done.  We also gained insight into what led to his actions and we learned that this “killer” is not some horrible beast but someone who cares deeply and has committed much of his life to kindness, risking his life to clear landmines and helping children affected by them.  The trip is increasingly showing us that the nature of humanity is neither good nor bad but both. We are seeing evidence of unthinkable cruelty as well as incredible compassion and we have to ponder what we are ourselves capable of.  Even war or perhaps especially war, is full of shades of grey.

The Lighter Side of Siem Reap

Our time in Siem Reap was not totally temples and site seeing.  The town itself is really nice and we spent a fair bit of time strolling around the markets and having ice cream at our new favourite shop, the Blue Pumpkin.

.....we also enjoying excellent meals that totaled less that $3.00 for an entre and  .50 for a draft

....having Fish Spas

.....recovering from the temples by having our tired feet massaged for $1.00

......swimming in the refreshing pool at our very lovely boutique hotel and enjoying a new treat introduced to us by Baruch….stacks of oreo cookies sandwiched with whipping cream!

......just watching life in Cambodia as we travelled from place to place

seeing fishing, Cambodia style, working together to surround what lies beneath the surface and bring them up....

All good things have to come to an end and the plan was not to run our month long Visa to Cambodia out in Siem Reap.  We sadly parted ways with our new friends and wished them luck as they were on their way to India.  We bussed back to Phnom Penh to pick up where we left off and to hopefully finally connect with the Centre for Children’s Happiness.

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