We are now in the 4th of our 5 country excursion. The first thing we experienced as we stepped off the plane was how hot it currently is in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The next thing that stood out is how long it takes to get through the airport when entering from another country. First we had to line up for a visa which cost $30 US per person. Once we had our visa we had to line up to clear customs which moved at a snails pace. It took over an hour to get out of the airport. Paying US dollars to enter a country seems to be a common practice in this part of the world. Once we cleared customs and collected our luggage and we met with our guide, Bok. Bok is a 47 year old father of four and has four grandchildren. They start family life quite young in Cambodia. Bok is from a family of nine and they experienced the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Bok was five when his wealthy parents were forced to leave their homes and relocate to the countryside. They were forced to eat anything to survive and he recalls chewing on grass and spitting it out. The family was separated and eventually reunited when the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979. Everyone in his family was reunited with the exception of an older sister. When asked how long the Khmer Rouge ruled his response was 3 years, 8 months and 20 days and a few hours.
Cambodia, which was originally called Kampuchea has a current population of 15 million people that are referred to as Khmer. The country used to ruled by kings but since 1979 it it is now governed by a "democratically" elected dictator, Hun Sen who has been in power for 37 years. The royal family is now more of a figure head, with the current king having been coronated in 2004. They opened up to tourism in 1999 and Siem Reap has a the feel of a more modern city compared to some of the cities we visited on our trip to date. They seem to embrace happy hours all over the city. We were quite surprised that they prefer to deal in US currency. When Sunny went to the ATM to withdraw cash it was in US funds. The Tuk Tuk is the preferred mode of transportation for tourists and it costs $3 to get downtown. We spent the first night visiting the night market which vendors sell mostly merchandise. Following the market we went for dinner on Pub Street. The one thing that stood out is the amount of restaurants that serve western foods like pizza and burgers. We are into week three and we have not had the desire to eat western foods.
Siem Reap is most known for its close proximity to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Siem Reap translation is Siam Defeated. It is also known as one of the seven man made wonders of the world. Over 3 million people visit Angkor Wat each year and the cost of entry is $37 US. Based on our math, that equates to over $111 million generated annually. The funds are going to maintain and restore the complex with a portion going to support the children's hospital in Siem Reap. Given that the rainy season lasts for six months, they would average over 15,000 visitors per day for the six months of the tourist season. Like typical tourists, we started day two with a 5 am pickup at our hotel for the drive to Angkor Wat. Arriving in the dark we positioned ourselves with the masses facing the temple waiting for the sun to come up. It truly was an awe inspiring sight to behold.
Angkor Wat was originally constructed in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple by the Khmer King, Suryavarman II. By the late 12th century, when their most beloved King Jayavarman VII came into power he gradually added Buddhist teaching and temples into the Angkor complex. You can tell as you enter into a temple whether it is Hindu or Buddhist by the use of the nagas (the spirit of the sea serpent: Hindu temple is guarded by a seven headed naga; Buddhist temple is guarded by 7 headed naga with Garuda (half man half bird) depicted on the front).
Angkor (city or capital) Wat (temple or pagoda) has 5 gate entrances, 9 towers, 6 libraries, 3 galleries and is 1.5 kms in length west to east and 1.3 kms north to south. Like all temples the Buddha faces east. The reason they face east is the sunrise signifies light and life while the west signifies dark and death. So if you are ever in this part of the world on a cloudy day you can determine which direction you are going by looking at a Buddha. The sunrise over Angkor Wat is a site to behold. Twice a year, March 23rd and September 23rd the sun rises directly over the main tower.
There are three distinctive time periods in the Angkor history; Pre Angkor ranged from 1st to 10th centuries; Angkor was from 10th to 16th centuries and post Angkor is 16th century to current time. One way to determine which period in which a building was constructed was the use of building materials. For example pre Angkor used brick while Angkor and post Angkor used sandstone.
There are 3 main gods in the Khmer faith; Indra, the god of sky and rain and the thunderbolt, Yama, the god of death and justice (determines if you go to heaven or hell) and Sorya who is the Sun god (determines what SPF required for any given day).
Just as an overview, Angkor Wat is only one structure within Angkor City. Also contained in Angkor City (400 square Km's in size) is Angkor Tom, which was the Kings Palace. All the main structures in Angkor Tom were constructed with wood and did withstand the test of time. Within the complex the temple walls have all be intricately carved to illustrate Khmer life and battles over time. Around Angkor Wat is a moat which signifies the ocean and the outer wall that is beside the moat signifies the mountains. All the land contained within the wall signifies the earth.
Another really important temple within the King's Palace is called Bayon Temple. It has 54 towers and 260 faces of Buddha (4 Buddha per tower). The four faces of Buddha represent, love, compassion, kindness and happiness. The Khmer Empire was in decline and defeated by the Champa Empire in the 15th century. The complex was abandoned and it was overgrown by jungle for 300 years before it was rediscovered. Today, there are many artifacts from the Angkor complex that are preserved in both the Siem Reap and Phnom Penh National Museums...some of the statues are dated back to the 8th century. However, over the years, there have been pillaging of the Buddha heads and statues too since the complex had been hidden from the world for over 300 years.
Back in the 12th century there was over 20,000 elephants in the area. There are currently 400 in existence as a result of war, landmines and poaching.
There is so much history to the local area and our guide Bok was extremely knowledgeable. The current population is comprised on 95% Buddhists, 3% Muslims and 2% Catholics. Khmer people do know kill large animals but the are not adverse to eating them.
We flew into Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon...getting hotter as we head south! To our surprise, we were upgraded to the Honeymoon suite at this pretty swanky hotel. How did they know??? The hotel breakfasts have been superb and have provided us with sufficient sustenance to power through our busy tour days, like today. We were only going to be in Phnom Penh for a half day of touring so we were going to make the most of it. We started off at the Imperial Palace--where the King and his Mother still currently live. The grounds are open to the public except for the private residences. It gave us a glimpse of the grandeur afforded to the Royal family albeit quite diminished from when the monarchy ruled the lands. Still lots of gold and glitter used for visiting rooms by foreign dignitaries and a "modest" Buddhist temple displaying a 90Kg gold and diamond encrusted Buddha.
Our stop in Phnom Penh was really not about the ancient temples and 1000 year old artifacts but somethings more recent like the genocide that took place during the Reign of Terror by the Khumer Rouge from April 17, 1975 to Jan. 9, 1979. It was heartbreaking to see the carnage caused by the Khumer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.
We first visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also referred to as S21. This facility was originally a school but the KR converted it to place where they conducted their torture, interrogation and incarceration of those who they believed to be enemies of their regime. They had photos depicting prisoners who had been tortured. However, the most haunting were the boards upon boards of photos of prisoners. Their strategies were to move all the citizens living in the city out to the farms to be labourers. Children were isolated from the parents and indoctrinated to be effective soldiers to the KR. If you were educated, you were basically executed. They removed all forms of money and possessions to create an equal class of citizens--farm labourers or KR soldiers. They only executed 15 people at S21 as their real location for mass extermination was located 15 kms away at Camp Choeung Ek, known to us as The Killing Fields.
In 1980, an excavation was started at this camp. There were over 84 mass graves discovered in this area. The largest of the mass graves held 450 bodies. Another grave held over 150 headless bodies and yet another, over 100 bodies of young children and women. Many skulls are now displayed at the camp in a stupa built to commemorate all these victimx. It is believed that during the Khumer Rouge reign, over 3 million people died, mostly through execution but also through starvation and landmine explosions.
What barbarians commit these atrocities to their own people? How heartbreaking it was for us to tour these facilities. How can the Khumer people ever forget this tragic period in their history? There are still people in the KR who are in government today, including their Prime Minister. Although there is no evidence of violence, we both sensed from our guides, that there is still a lot oppression amongst the people as they feel that current administration is selling them out to foreign money, especially to the Chinese and Koreans. We left this city feeling emotionally drained yet so much more aware and blessed we did not live through this nightmare.
Now onto Vietnam...can't wait to explore this exotic country which also has its share of war stories!