Sunday, January 10, 2010

Angkor What?

Over New Year’s we were lucky to learn more about Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom during a quick trip to Cambodia. We flew to Cambodia through Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, leaving cool grey Hong Kong for sunny warm Siem Reap. The kids happily threw on swim suits and jumped into the pool, while we moved a little slower, saddened by the misery the region had seen through civil war and the Khmer Rouge. It is hard to reconcile Cambodia’s war-torn past with the luxuries available for tourists today. It is a wonder that the temples survived the Khmer Rouge, despite their efforts to eradicate Cambodian culture.

While there, we visited Angkor Wat, the main temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. From their studies of world religions at school, the kids had some ideas about Hinduism. I could only add that these temples were built over one thousand years ago first as Hindu temples but then retooled into Buddhist temples as well. Some centuries later, Buddhism became the official religion of Cambodia. In the 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge murdered the majority of Buddhist monks in the country and destroyed the country’s wats. As we walked around the temples, young monks were a common picturesque sight, their bright orange robes standing out clearly against the grayish stone temples.

Angkor Wat is a grand site, surrounded by a moat. Though many other tourists were there, the temple grounds were so immense that it was easy to find a quiet corridor or courtyard. The kids climbed all over the huge stones, while we came along a little slower, trying to take in all the details carved all over the walls. At one point, I caught up to Tori and found her sitting out on a ledge about fifty feet off the ground. Angor Wat was full of steep stairs up and unfortunately, steep drops down but we made it through enlightened and unharmed.

Angkor Thom, another site nearby, means “great city,” and includes many temples. The entire area, about ten square kilometers is encircled by a tall wall and moat. As we drove through the grounds towards the temples, we saw wild monkeys and tame elephants carrying tourists. One temple, Bayon, was built by Cambodia’s King Jayavarman VII and has many stairs, 54 towers and 216 faces of Avalokiteshvara smiling down from every direction. It was beautiful but hot and as soon as Adam tripped over a large rock, we immediately started our trek back to the hotel.

After refreshments, we made our way to one of the most well known jungle temples, Ta Prohm. Built in 1186, Ta Prohm was a Buddist temple built to honor King Jayavarman VII’s mother. Back in the day, approximately 80,000 people lived and worked in the temple as priests, dancers, and cleaners. Today the jungle is pushing through the temple with huge tree roots coming down through the temple walls. We kept telling the kids that this temple was very much like Indiana Jones but since they don’t know those movies that didn’t mean much but they loved this temple regardless.

Finally, we went to Tonle Sap Lake to see what is called their floating village. Basically, we took a water taxi out to the lake, driving past floating homes, schools and stores. We stopped at a floating restaurant and watched the sun go down over the lake. The whole area was very poor and we were proud to see a USAID funded clean water station right there. The kids were fine with the floating life and thought it looked good, especially after they saw a little girl in a boat carrying a large snake in her arms. They thought it was a pet and I hope it was.

Though the temples were great, Adam says his favorite part of the trip was the tuk-tuks. The tuk-tuks were how we got around each day, a motorcycle pulled cart that sort of held five people. Every morning Phil and Adam would go out and negotiate a day’s rate and for the rest of the day that driver would take us anywhere. Adam got to know many of the local drivers and waved vigorously to all of them, even the ones we did not hire that day. It was definitely not a very safe mode of travel but with the wind in our faces, it was exciting. The kids most likely think this all the time, but this time we could agree; getting there was as much of an adventure as the final destination.


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