Angkor Thom: Ancient Khmer Capital

On our last day we toured the spectacular Angkor Thom whose name translates into the “Great City”.  This last and most enduring capital of the Khmer empire lies about a mile from Angkor Wat on the right bank of the Siem Reap river.

The city was heavily guarded, fortified by a moat, wide embankment for solders and guard towers. Enclosed were the residences and administrative centers of the priest, palace officials and military. The first sight as we approached  Angkor Thom was the  imposing face of the 75 foot high tower gate.

The bridge is still a very functional entrance for an assortment of transportation vehicles be it tuk tuk…

or other…

Angkor Thom was first founded in 899 but a majority of the structures were constructed by Jayavarman VII who reigned from 1181 to 1220.  He was also the ruler who built Ta Prohm which I explored in the previous “tree temple” post.   Andy called this man the “Cambodian Donald Trump” which given the amount of buildings attributed to him seems accurate.

The ornately decorated Bayan was the official state temple and stands in the center of Angkor Thom.  From a far it looks chaotic especially when compared to the stately and symmetrical Angkor Wat.

Once a top the terraces the beauty of the Bayon expresses itself magnificently.  Especially impressive are the stone faces that look out in each direction from the towers in all there were 216 present.

In a Playful Moment Aidan Goes "Nose to Nose" with one of the Ancient Men

The temple was originally dedicated as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine, later rulers altered it to Hinduism and later back to Theravada Buddhist before being abandoned back into the jungle.  Today there is again some evidence of its religious importance.

This shrine was in a corridor of the Bayon

This impressive Buddha was located adjacent to the temple

The Baphuon is a temple located northwest of the Bayon.  It was built in the mid-11th century not by  “J VII” but by another ruler whose building style was not as sturdy.  By the 20th century most of the structure had collapsed but in April 2011 after 51 years it was reopened.  Unfortunately it was deemed to steep for children under 12 so we viewed it from afar.

However, nearby was Phimeanakas which was also quite steep but deemed accessible for adventurous 5 year old boys.  Aidan was more than happy to climb to the top while poor Sydney had to look on enviously from below. Legend has it that the King had to lie with Nagini, the girl with a serpents body, every night in this temple before going to his wives and concubines.  If he failed to perform this duty even one night the kingdom was doomed.  Hmmm-maybe that is why Andy offered to trek to the top while the girls stayed below…

Allegedly the view from the oversexed Serpent Ladies

Sydney would scream with delight at each passing pachyderm…

I preferred the stoic Elephant Terrace with its spectacular carvings.

At the end of our tour we finally took a photo with all four of us.  Usually the photographer is left out.

Once again the vastness, expanse and intricacies of the Angkor Complex are overwhelming and stunning.

Cambodia’s Fantastic Cuisine

Ten years ago  I worked at Lynn Community Health Center just north of Boston where I cared for a fairly sizable Cambodia immigrant population.  On occasion the staff would order from a local restaurant.  I remember fondly the spring rolls which were wrapped in delicate rice paper and filled with fresh carrots, mint and glass noodles.  I knew then the food was wonderful but I was unprepared for the diversity and fantastic creativity of the Siem Reap dining scene.

Our first meal was a quick light lunch at the Le Meridian after we checked in while waiting for our room to be cleaned.  Sydney had changed for a brief moment from begging for “Chicken Rice” to “Noodles”.   We ordered an Indonesian style noodle dish and got this wonderful presentation with satays and a fried egg as well.

One evening we went to Sugar Palm which is located in a beautiful house with a large open air balcony and wooden floors.  This restaurant serves fairly traditional Cambodian food.

Fish Amok which could be claimed as Cambodia’s national dish is curried codfish seasoned with coconut milk , paprika, ginger garlic and chills. At Sugar Palm it was presented baked like a soufflé.
Our waiter suggested a roasted aubergine dish.  The vegetable underneath the crust had a rich savory flavor. I am not always the biggest fan of eggplant but I really enjoyed this presentation.

A must try is the Blue Pumpkin which feels very modern and has wonderful fusion food. Our favorite dish was the Fish Amok Ravioli. Unfortunately we devoured the food before we took photos, but I do have a great one of Sydney who approved of the homemade ice cream.
After a long day of touring we relaxed across the river at the  Butterflies Garden Restaurant. There a net across the top tries to contain some newly emerged beauties raised on site.  We saw very few butterflies which was probably fortunate because before we went there Aidan protested the choice. He was afraid the insects  would land in his food and he would eat them.  The owners use some of the profits from the restaurant and adjoining gift shop to support local disadvantaged children which makes it a wonderful place to support.
The final restaurant I went to was Il Forno.  It is actually known for wonderful Italian food.  Unfortunately Sydney complained her “tummy hurt” minutes before the food arrived.  We thought she was hungry until a few seconds later she did her best “Linda Blair in The Exorcist” impersonation all over my shoes.  She and I then spent the next 24 hours at the hotel.  Aidan give high marks to the pizza and the gnocchi Andy brought back to me was wonderful.
One final photo is on the market in Siem Reap where on display were wonderful ingredients used in Cambodian cooking.
Cambodia seems to be emerging not only as a wonderful travel destination but as a culinary wonderland as well.  I am more than happy to see this influence spread further and relish the thought of exploring where this frontier leads.

Tree Temples and Tomb Raiders

Angkor Wat may be the most famous temple but a short distance away lies Ta Prohm  which is more unusual and stunning.  Here fig and silk-cotten trees magically entwine ancient stone temples and carvings.   The beauty of Ta Prohm remains in large part to the foresight of a French Archeological team who in the early 20th century decided the site would be largely left as it had been found as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque”.

Wandering throughout this ancient beauty, I felt as though I had stepped into a Indiana Jones movie.

The site in fact is famous as the back drop of scenes in Tomb Raider released in 2001. I know this because I heard many tour guides discuss this in many languages, “Angelina Jolie” remarkably is  pronounced the same throughout the world.

This is me as not Jolie. I now it is hard to tell. 🙂

Ta Prohm was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and shrine beginning in 1186 A.D. The structures were dedicated in part to his mother.  When I asked Aidan what he would build for me someday he responded he has a few legos in Singapore.  Not quite an ancient temple but I am sure Aidan’s structure will be built with love none the less.

The carvings were fantastic.

Some of them like this ancient face peaked out from between the serpentine vines.

A Carved Face

The children had fun at the ruins. Sydney does a great interpretation of the 900 year old dancers.

The trees in the structure were very soft this contributed to their ability to surround rather than encompass the temples. There were naturally a lot of holes and breaks in the trunks.

There were a few surprises found in the day to entertain us all.

Colorful Temple Lizard

Sometimes the Ruins are a Relaxing Place

This site was fantastic and my favorite day of touring the Angkor area.  The ancient Ta Prohm was eerie, haunting and beautiful.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the most famous complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park which stretches over a massive 150 square mile area.  The temple was built but the Khmers or the traditional people of Cambodia for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century.   A remarkable amount of the structure remains 900 years later.  Partially due to its importance  to Khmer people and also because of its surrounding  moat which provided some protection from the encroachment of the jungle.

We did not take this photo but I think it shows the complex well

Angkor Wat – the “Capital Temple” – is so much a part of Cambodia that it has been on every version of the Cambodian flag since 1863, the only building to appear on any national flag.

The temple was originally Hindu dedicated to the god VIshnu.  Later it was converted to Theravada Buddhism which continues to the present day.  The statues show elements of both religions.

The structures up close are wondrous.

The carvings are intricate and beautiful.

Ok some of the carvings are interesting and a little frightening.

Tourism is relatively new in Angkor.  The area was given World Heritage Site designation by UNESCO in 1992.  However throughout the 1990’s lodging options were very limited and it was still very dangerous to visit.  As recently as 1994, a western tourist was killed by a presumed Khmer Rouge member near the Wat.

A Man Sells Goods Around the Temples Periphery

Today things are very different over 2 million people visit annually and besides the shouting of tour guides it is a very serene peaceful place.

Aidan Plays in the Dirt by Onlookers Watching the Sunrise

When the view is so beautiful I do not think you can keep people away.

I just hope the preservation can be done in a way to sustain this view for the next millenia and beyond.

Holiday in Cambodia?

When Andy and I travelled to Thailand in 1998, we first saw a few advertisements for trips to Cambodia. The country, which was so decimated by civil war and genocide in the 1970’s, received a UNESCO world heritage designation for Angkor Wat in 1992 and with the help of outside aid the temples were being restored. For fourteen years, Andy has been fascinated by the possibility of seeing the structures in person. The flight to Siem Reap, the now developed tourist town near the wat, happens to be less than 2 hours from Singapore. Travel to Cambodia was planned soon after our Singapore tickets were booked.

I must admit I was very apprehensive about our journey. Cambodia holds a infamous place in very recent history. The Khmer Rouge’s insane desire to take the country back to “year one” which they deemed a time before any Western influence killed 20% of the population or about 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. The targets were first anyone with education, teachers, doctor and even those with eyeglasses (they assumed this made you literate) then they moved on to just about everyone else. The country is still one of the poorest in the world. The Angkor Wat looked beautiful but did I really want to take two small children there.

Recently I did begin to notice many positive reasons to visit. Many people in Singapore had been and had wonderful things to say about their time in Cambodia. Travel and Leisure magazine last July ranked Siem Reap as one of the “World’s Best Cities”. It was in fact ranked seventh which is one spot above my all time favorite city Sydney. I did a bit more reading and my apprehension faded.

My experiences in Cambodia will take a few posts to document but I want to share some of my impressions.   Cambodia, at least in Siem Reap, is easier to navigate than other developing nations I have visited.  The infrastructure is very good.  There are wonderful restaurants with English menus and fabulous food.

Travel is strikingly inexpensive. This reflects the general low wages of the citizens.  Many Cambodians live off of $1 income  a day.  Our guide said that as an English teacher in a respected high school five years ago he earned only $80 a month. Tuk-tuks which are a motorcycle pulling a rickshaw are a popular form of transportation. A ride to town five to ten minutes away costs $2. The driver will wait the two hours while you eat dinner and then drive you back. If you give him $5 he is very pleased. The kids loved the tuk-tuks. Sydney would protest when we had to ride in a car.

When traveling around it was striking how few elderly people I saw.  This was confirmed when I read that 70% of the population was born after the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979. As of 2010 the life expectancy for a woman is 65 years old. This may not sound great but as recently as 1999 it was only 46!

Modes of transportation like this does not help the mortality rate.

There were many children but very few that have blue eyes so our kids once again became celebrities. At a store near our hotel where we often went to buy juice, Aidan was so fawned over and kissed by the lovely young Cambodian women that you could have inserted George Clooney and never know the difference. They were also popular photo accessories at the temples.  I think this is a role they could get way to used to.

There are few visible remnants of the civil wars. Most notably there were a few victims of land mines asking for money. On a more positive note, we encountered a group of amputees playing beautiful music for their cause. Sydney and Aidan danced and did not seem to notice their injuries. Our guide told us an estimate 10 million land mines were likely installed of which 4 million have not yet been found.

I kept looking for bitterness in the people about what they had been through but all I saw were smiles. I am certain some scars run very deep.  There is finally now a tribunal in place to attempt to bring some healing to the Cambodian people. Ironically the first and only man who has been convicted had his sentence extended from 30 years with 13 of them already served to life. The appealed decision was handed down the day after we arrived. This man/monster oversaw the S-21 detention center in Phnom Penh where an estimated 17,000 people went in and only 12 survived. Justice for Cambodia seems to be slow but at least there are some visible signs.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to abolish religion but today 95% of the population currently practices Theravada Buddhism.  We saw sign of this throughout our travels.

I have to give a special thanks to the kindness of the staff at the Le Meridian hotel where we stayed. The general manager Gregory personally sat with us for at least a half hour upon our arrival and gave us tips for enjoying our stay. He had a seven year old son and was especially cognizant of what young children might enjoy. Three days later when my daughter, who still cannot stop putting everything in her mouth, developed an inevitable case of vomiting and diarrhea I called him to find out if medical was available if she became dehydrated. He told me if she needed care there is a wonderful hospital ten minutes away run by a world class Bangkok group. He would personally drive us there if needed. In the meantime the staff laundered our clothes at no cost and returned them in two hours. The chef sent broth and toast and the housekeepers helped me throughout the night with bed changes. Fortunately she improved and we did not need medical help but the reassurance it was there was comforting.

Sometimes in Life You Have to Jump In

Overall our stay was a wonderful experience. I will tease you with a bit of beauty from Angkor Wat but the remaining photos will be posted another time soon.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat