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Along the Royal Roads to Angkor

Siem Reap – the name means “victory over Siam” and this historic town forms the gateway to the mysterious temple complex of Angkor in the jungle kingdom of Cambodia. The massive Mekong river basin connects the town of Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. It’s strangely quiet for a capital, almost down-and-out. Wide palm tree lined boulevards hug the riverfront and the French colonial style buildings look tired and run down. Crowded boats with rusty old car motors ply the tea-coloured Mekong waters, ferrying mostly women and children and their provisions to and from the city.

For the adventurous traveller, there is a fast ferry to Siem Reap ($25), which is a great alternative for brave, intrepid explorers. An easier and stress-free way of getting there is to fly. There are now direct flights to Siem Reap from most SE Asian capitals for those whistle-stop trippers with limited time.

We were met by Muon, our English-speaking guide at the small Siem Reap airport. Don’t even attempt to visit this historical area without a guide. It will make absolutely no sense, and you will come away wondering why all the fuss about a few old ruins. An official guide should cost about $20 per day, plus an additional amount for a driver. (Useful during the rainy season.)

With only four days of sightseeing available, we had to plan our attack quite carefully. It would take over a week to see all the temples of Angkor, each of which is in varying stages of restoration. The temples form part of an ancient city of 400 km², and take one back to a time when the impressive Khmer empire was reflected in its monuments of stone.

The magnificent Angkor Wat is a masterpiece of precision design and craft, and one wonders how they acquired their architectural knowledge and skill. The mortarless floors, walls and towers are built from perfectly interlocking sandstone blocks. Not even water can penetrate. The geometry and alignment with the cardinal points are perfect. At dawn on the equinox, the sun rises directly over the elevated tower at the very centre of the complex.

It is impossible to do justice to Angkor Wat with words. It really is a visual feast on a huge scale. I walked slowly across the paved causeway, which spans the surrounding moat and eventually leads up to the main gate in the outer wall. Once inside, three concentric galleries or passageways enclose the 5 towers of the elevated central sanctuary. Construction on Angkor Wat began in 1113 as a Hindu centre of worship in honour of the god Vishnu. Carvings of female deities or devatas appear throughout the temple, and the galleries display scenes in bas-relief of Hindu epic myths. A cool breeze blows through the perfectly straight passages bringing welcome relief from the heat and humidity outside.

I am immediately transported back in time to the 12th century and imagine myself to be a worshipper visiting the temple for the first time. There is a sense of drama embedded in the walls of this ancient citadel.

Another type of drama unfolded here in the recent past, and the outer walls of Angkor Wat are pocked with bullet holes where the Khmer Rouge battled Vietnamese forces. But the battle scars are not only to be found in the temple walls. They are to be seen in the heartbreaking eyes of many thousands of amputees, the innocent victims of the indiscriminate use of landmines. There are millions of unexploded landmines still being cleared in Cambodia. Their precise number and locations are not known, and many returning refugees have had the joy of being reunited with their families destroyed due to post-war landmine accidents. The Landmine Museum near Siem Reap is excellent, and provides some insight into the impact of these terrible weapons on a paradise gone wrong.

Our second day took us along a 40km muddy pot-holed road to the Banteay Srei temple. Along the way we passed small villages surrounded by rice paddies, subsistence farming and browsing water buffalos. Houses are traditionally elevated on stilts, and roofs and walls are thatched. There are now restrictions placed on chopping down trees, so timber is hard to come by these days.

The temple was well worth the difficult journey. Green lichen had grown onto some of the tiers of this terraced structure, creating a beautiful green mossy effect on the rust-coloured sandstone blocks. The Banteay Srei has the best preserved and, as yet, unplundered carvings, depicting ancient scenes of everyday life, as well as religious legends.

Theft of statues, carvings and relics is still rife, especially at the temples in more remote areas of Cambodia. This is an ongoing problem, exacerbated by the huge demand for these relics in Thailand and other neighbouring countries.

The afternoon was spent marveling at the sophisticated system of water control that existed in the form of gravity-fed reservoirs. A complex system of controlled release gates provided year-round irrigation to the area, which then became an agricultural powerhouse. The result was twofold: flooding during the wet monsoons was prevented, and the same water could be stored during the dry season. This was the main contributing factor to the dominance and longevity of the Angkorian empire.

Day three was a day of serendipitous experiences, beginning with a visit to the so-called floating village on Lake Sap. Cambodians, Vietnamese and Chams live here in houseboats, and make their living fishing on SE Asia’s biggest lake. The water level fluctuates by over 3m between the wet and dry seasons, and homes, schools, shops and even garages literally rise and fall with the seasons. Residents here seem unfazed by the fact that they live completely surrounded by water for 6 months of the year, and continue normally with everyday life. One really feels the resilience of the human spirit here, able to overcome the lack of basic infrastructure and harsh living conditions.

But the human spirit is humbled when faced with the eternal forces of nature. The intriguing temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn are the only temples of Angkor that have been left totally untouched since their construction around the turn of the 11th century. Over time, huge banyan trees have taken root in the temple walls, and have slowly prised the stone blocks apart reducing them to piles of rubble. Courtyards are a jumble of fallen carved stone blocks with branches and tendrils running between everything. Huge roots cascade over shattered roofs like molten wax, and others crawl along the littered ground before disappearing into another wall. It all bears testament to the relentless life force of the jungle.

Evening activities in Siem Reap included a wonderful cultural showcase at the Apsara Theatre, which consisted of a traditional dinner and dance performance. The dance movements were striking and graceful, and costumes were vividly coloured and elaborate. Both the food and the show were equally exotic, and offered a unique taste of the ancient traditions of Khmer society.

Most restaurants in Siem Reap are outdoors and offer reasonably priced, freshly prepared meals. Try the freshly caught steamed fish or traditional Cambodian chicken. Flavours are similar to Thai food, but have some additional mysterious flavours that were absolutely delicious. Since the water everywhere in Cambodia is unsafe for drinking, try the local beer! If you are a dessert junkie, try everything. It’s amazing!

A visit to Cambodia is a feast of cultural and historical experiences, but two decades of war has slowly depleted the country’s resources. The miraculous preservation of the treasures of Angkor reflects the resilience and essence of the Khmer people. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has seen untold hardship, but hopefully as these majestic buildings are restored and repaired, there can also be a healing of the Cambodian spirit.

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