“Gi gong. Gi gong!” I repeated, switching to Khmer. “I want to ride a bicycle around Angkor Wat.” I insisted.
“But it is more than thirty kilometers.” Protested the clerk at the bicycle shop. “And besides, it is raining.”
Thirty kilometers isn’t a huge distance for a bicycle. But, he did have a point about the rain.
“When do you think it will let up?” I asked, considering postponing.
“In a month or two.”
“Give me a bicycle now.” I decided. I paid my two dollars rental, and made the clerk’s day. Now, when he went for lunch with his colleagues, he would have a great story to tell.
Cambodia is great for adventure tours, but if you are afraid of water, (is that called hydrophobic?) you shouldn’t come in the rainy season. The air temperature is always pretty high, so a cool drizzle feels good. Besides, twenty minutes into a bike ride I am usually dripping with sweat anyway.
The bicycle, a cheap Chinese copy of a mountain bike, was easily the worst bicycle I had ever ridden. Neither the gears nor the brakes worked, which was a lot of fun in the rain. The seat post and wheels were bent, and the rear axles made a loud klunking noise once each revolution of the wheel. The chain also went completely slack at times, causing the pedals to spin independently. They would usually come around and crack me on the shins. It was a lot like when I was learning Khmer Kickboxing and had to kick tree trunks with my shins.
“You will be a champion some day.” Said Thavrin, who would be my companion for the entire Cambodian adventure.
I’ve had better bicycles. But no bicycle ever gave me as much as this one did, taking me around Angkor Wat. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and I was there on a bicycle. Not bad for a boy from Brooklyn who once believed you would fall off the Earth if you went beyond East 78th street.
Khmers think foreigners are all insane. In Khmer culture, anyone with enough money to go on vacation could afford a driver, or at least a car. They don’t quite understand why we would chose to ride a bicycle. For me, aside from a need to work off all of the free four-star meals I had been eating in this trip, I feel a bicycle is the best way to tour anything. It is faster than walking, which can sometimes get tedious. You can barely walk thirty kilometers in a day, much less stop off and look at interesting temples. A car is too fast. And there is something both decadent and displeasing about stepping out of an air-conditioned vehicle, snapping a digital photo, and then driving to the next interesting temple. A bicycle is somehow more honest.
From the town of Siem Reap to the Angkor Wat complex is only about two or three kilometers. Less than one kilometer out of Siem Reap, the noise level drops to zero. You follow a beautiful, tree-lined path to the mote. No matter how many photos you have seen of Angkor Wat, nothing will prepare you for your first glimpse of the actual temple. It rises up like some beautiful creation of the gods.
Entrance into the park is free for Khmers. For foreigners, it costs $20 for a day pass, or $40 for a three-day pass. The park is so incredibly large, that it cannot be seen in a day, or even three for that matter. If you have already paid thousands of dollars for a plane ticket to Cambodia, you might as well stay the extra two or three days and really experience Angkor Wat. Once again, like all of the temple complexes in Cambodia you are free to wander and do pretty much whatever you want to inside of the park. But, it would be recommended to hire a guide. English speaking guides run about $20 per day. Guides for other languages are more expensive. The guides will explain the intricacies of ancient Khmer architecture, as well as all of the legends from the Ramayana and elsewhere, which appear on the walls of the great temple. Without a guide you are just wandering aimlessly about, snapping photos of interesting stoneworks, which will all look the same to you when you get the photos developed after you return home.
At the park entrance, the guard told me I had to buy a ticket. Since I had a krama, a traditional Khmer scarf, wrapped around my head, and I speak Khmer, I tried to get in for free.
“I am Khmer.” I told him. “I don’t have to pay.”
Many Khmers have never heard a foreigner speak their language, and the guard was noticeably taken off balance. Finally, he formulated the question that had been running around his head. “If you are Khmer why is your skin so white?”
“My father is Chinese.” I said.
“But your Khmer doesn’t sound perfect.”
“My mother died in the war.”
This almost convinced him. But then he asked. “Why do you have round eyes?”
“I was adopted by an American family.” I said.
I don’t think he actually believed the story. But there must have been nothing in his training course to prepare him for a foreigner trying to pass himself off as a half Chinese war orphan. Finally, we both burst out laughing, and I felt a little guilty about my clumsy attempt at deception. Of course, the joke was on me, because now I had to shell out $40 for a three-day pass.
“Tell your mother she can get in for free.” He told me, as he waved me through.
Maybe he had believed me after all.
Once through the gates, there is a choice of two routes to take, the Grand Loop or the Small Loop. I chose the Grand Loop, which measures about thirty kilometres all the way around the complex. Roughly the first kilometer takes you past the main Angkor Wat temple, which you are familiar with from postcards and T-Shirts. And, if you have had the good fortune of living in Cambodia for a year and a half, as I have, you will have received at least one gift, a dinner plate, paperweight, or toothbrush, which bears the sacred image. Angkor Wat is the symbol of Khmer pride; its image even adorns the Cambodian flag. The time of the Angkor Empire, 1100 AD is also referred to as The Glorious Age, when Khmer civilization was at its peak, and Cambodia was more than twice its current size.
According to my guide, Samban, from Phnom Penh Tours, in ancient times, Cambodia bordered China, Thailand, Lao, and Myanmar. Effectively, there was no Vietnam at that time. Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, was part of Cambodia. But, eventually, the Kingdom of Vietnam encroached on Khmer soil, until Cambodia no longer reached to China. Later, the French ceded the lower half of Cambodia, called Kampuchea Krom, to Vietnam. Thailand also infringed on Cambodian territory, even occupying Angkor Wat for some brief periods of history.
Although Angkor Wat is both a world heritage site and the single most important, artefact of Cambodian history, the temple is not some isolated relic. It is a living, breathing part of modern Khmer life. Bamboo huts of neighbouring villages are built right up to the mote of the ancient temple. Hawkers earn their living selling products to the visitors, with constant shouts of “Mr, OK, you come eat drink, ok.” The mote is so large, that people make a profession of fishing in it. Children ride bicycles along the great stone walls, but not the whole thirty kilometers, only foreigners were that dumb, and we saw several others doing the same as us.
One of the nice things about travelling by bicycle is that you are guaranteed a warm reception wherever you go. I wanted my first day at Angkor Wat to be about the people who lived along its perimiter or made their living directly from the temple. On a bicycle it was easy to stop and converse with people anytime we chose. And of course the Khmer people were always willing to chat.
The first people we stopped to talk to was a group of small children doing traditional fishing. They waded into the marshy areas on the fringes of the mote carrying a scoop-shaped screen made of woven bamboo. They stooped down, and pushed the screen, like a sledge, through the water. Similar to panning for gold, when the screen was full, they would pick through the silt and weeds. After discarding the muck on his screen, a small boy put a handful of tiny fish in a plastic jug.
“Do you do this for business?” I asked him.
“No, for soup.” He answered.
The children tried to teach me to use the screen but I couldn’t get the hang of it. The trick was to trawl jut deep enough to collect water, but not so deep that the screen fowled on the long weeds growing up out of the water. Even for experienced fishers the job was not very rewarding. After hours of fishing, the children had collected about thirty fish, each the size of your thumb.
We crossed over the bridge at the North Gate of Angkor Tom. The tops of the railings along the sides of the bridge were seven-headed naga (giant serpents from Hindu/Buddhist mythology). The thirty-meter long naga were supported by stone figures, each of which depicted a different character from Hindu/Buddhist mythology. The figures fighting for good were on the left side of the bridge. And the evil characters were on the right.
At the end of the bridge we passed beneath a massive stone arch, which displayed bas-reliefs from the myth, entitled, The Churning Sea of Milk (Go Samut Duk Dah). Set atop the arch was a Buddhist satva. Samban explained. “A satva is someone on his way to becoming Buddha. The Dali Lama would be an example of a Satva.”
We rode on to a lesser-visited attraction, which is not on the itinerary of the one-day tourists. Samban led me from the road, down a quiet green path. We climbed up an embankment, and stood atop a stone parapet. In the ground below us gaped an oval shaped hole reminiscent of an ancient area. The pit was approximately three meters deep, and the area measured approximately 100m squared.
“It is believed.” Said Samban “That the ancient Khmers would drive wild elephants into this put and train them for the army.”
At that moment it dawned on me that not only were the ancient Khmers gone, but the elephants as well. In addition to being home to the most powerful empire in Indochina, Cambodia had also been home to elephants and tigers. But, like so many other resources in the country, countless years of civil war, poverty, and corruption have driven the animals nearly to extinction.
Back on the bicycles we enjoyed the serenity and invasive green of the Khmer rainy season. It would probably have been better to ride a bike on a sunny day, but at least the rain kept us cool. In the dry season the heat would have been oppressive.
Our next stop was at Preah Khan, which was originally built as a Buddhist temple in 1191 by King Jaya Varaman VII, who instituted Buddhism as the national religion of Cambodia. But, when he died, King Jaya Varaman VIII changed the national religion back to Hinduism. The new king ordered the faces of the Buddhist statues destroyed. Today, the temple is adorned with 15,000 faceless Buddas.
The temple was topped by a tile roof, and constructed of heavy stone blocks connected with metal joints. Temples were protected by tremendous bas reliefs of the three mythical animals garuda (half man/half bird), naga, and lions. These were the symbols of power and were permitted to remain on the temple after the ascension of Jaya Varaman VIII. All three figures garuda, naga, and lion have since been accepted by both Buddhist and Hindu kings of Cambodia.
Both the enormity of these temples and the beauty of the detailed craftsmanship is difficult to take in. That devotion to a god unseen drove men to create such structures is unfathomable today, when most of us cant be bothered to go to church. But, one of the most amazing aspects of the temples is that no one ever lived in them. Even monks and kings were housed outside, in wooden structures. The temples were strictly the dwelling places of the gods.
Many of the temples were surrounded by a mote, and enclosed behind stonewalls, which bore a martial appearance. Reminded of European castles, I asked Samban if the temples had played any military role, if perhaps in times of war, they would have been used as fortresses. Any discussion of Cambodian history always tuns to the unhealed scars left by the Khmer Rouge. The Angkor Empire had departed from the Earth hundreds of years before anyone had heard of Pol Pot. But the precious stones of Angkor Wat were witnesses to genocide.
Samban explained that during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, form 1979 to 1987, the Vietcong turned these temples into garrisons. Siem Reap was the primary battleground during the war between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol, 1970-1975. So, obviously tourists weren’t able t visit the temples at that time. During the Khmer Rouge period, 1975-1979, no foreigners were even allowed to enter Cambodia. The first tourism officially began in 1987, when the Vietnamese government created a state-run tourist agency. At that time, there were very few tourists, and mostly from Communist Block countries. But, the area around the temples had been so heavily mined by Vietnamese soldiers that you couldn’t visit most of them. Siem Reap remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 19991 when UNTAC arrived (The UN peace keeping mission).
“In the 60s there were tourists here.” Exclaimed Samban. But then, because of the KR, the temples were neglected or destroyed. “I saw photos of the temples in 1989, they were completely overgrown, reclaimed by the jungle.”
On the way back to our bicycles we stopped off to interview a band of musicians, all landmine victims. They were seated on the ground, displaying their amputations, playing traditional Khmer instruments. One man, Wan Yun, was only 32 but already blind in one eye and was missing a leg.
“Did this happen to you in the army?” I asked.
“Yes.” Answered Wan Yun. He looked sad, but he was still smiling politely, which is the Khmer way. One would think that working at Angkor Wat he would be tired of tourists. But, he seemed genuinely excited to be talking to me. Maybe it was because most tourists just walked past him, or gave him money, without taking the time to recognise that he was a human being who needed to talk.
In most countries, asking if someone had been in the army was enough. But in Cambodia the next question had to be “Which one?” In recent memory, Khmer men and women have served in the Royal Army, under King Norodom Sihanouk, the Republican army, under Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge, Under Pol Pot, The Khmer Serai (free Khmer army) under a number of different leaders, the Kampuchea army, under the Vietcong, or finally, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, under Prime Minister Hun Sen. If you conducted enough interviews, it was not difficult to find men in their early fifties, who had served in several, or all of the Cambodian armies.
Wan Yun told me that he had been injured in 1993, while serving in Hun Sen’s army, fighting the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border. Two years ago, he had been taken into a government program, and was taught to play music. Now, he and the rest of the band members lived in a government run shelter, and supported themselves by performing for tourists.
Two massive, headless guardians protected the entrance to the temple. “I brought a tourist here in 1999.” Explained Samban. “She was shocked when she saw the heads were missing from the statues. After she returned to her country she sent me copies of the photos she had made here in 1969. The heads were on the statues at that time.”
“Who stole them?” I asked.
“It could have been a number of people.” Answered Samban. “The Vietnamese took a lot of our historical artefacts with them when they left. It also could have been Khmer Rouge.”
“Could it have been some poor people who sold them for food?” I suggested.
“Absolutely not!” Samban was emphatic here. “Poor people have no idea the value of these artefacts. They would also have no idea how to sell them.”
“How are they sold?” I asked, just in case things didn’t work out as a writer, maybe I could become a temple raider.
“The artefacts have to be transported to Thailand, then smuggled across the border, and sold on the Thai black market.” The border with Thailand was still quite pores, but in the Khmer Rouge time, before 1994, it was even worse, with KR cadres passing back and forth at will. It is also a well-known secret that Thai border police accept bribes. Some Khmers go as far as saying that the Thai allow the transport and sale of the Khmer artefacts out of spite, just to rid the Cambodians of their cultural heritage.
Regardless of Thai complicity, to take a massive stone sculpture and transport it through numerous military blockades and police roadblocks, before even getting to the Thai border, would require permission and protection from someone high up. Said another way, the sculptures weren’t sold by a poor farmer trying to feed his starving family. They were sold by powerful people, Vietnamese or otherwise, to buy a new Land Cruiser, while the family of the poor farmer continued to starve.