The beauty of Cambodia
Published on: Sunday, October 13, 2019
By: Sylvia Howe
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Today I am writing from my hotel balcony in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The sun is out, the sky is blue with some thick clouds (there is an occasional rainstorm) and the hotel is quiet, interrupted only by the sounds of birds and the occasional put put of a passing motorbike not the ear splitting waspish whine of the ones in KK I am relieved to say.

It was not so long ago that there was a terrible civil war here, as we know, with horrors of all kinds. I look at the faces of the people here and remember that they have seen unimaginable things, things I have never encountered. I hope I never will.

One of the bad things during and after the war was the looting of the antiquities at Angkor Wat and other temples. This mostly occurred in the Seventies to the Nineties, and according to reports, truckloads of stolen statues, huge and small, were thrown on to lorries and driven in a steady stream over the border. This has cut down a great deal, mostly, one researcher says, because all the good stuff has gone. Heartbreaking. 

We bought a three-day ticket ($62) and hired a tuktuk to take us to the temples, which are a few kilometers out of town ($38 for two people for two days). Savonn arrived with a cold box full of water bottles cuddling in blocks of ice, and some face towels which were always a blessing after a sweaty stroll around temple ruins. He was always on time and drove us about as needed, pleasantly and informatively. He is not a scholarly guide but he knows where to look – ask if you would like his contacts. 

We started at 8 am. Many flog off for sunset or sunrise, but we are spoilt by the lovely ones in KK, and decided to stay longer in bed and air con! Because there are not many tourists at the moment in Cambodia (elections in December apparently), when we arrived at about 8.30, we never felt overwhelmed by numbers, as we had been warned we might. I wasn’t prepared for how BIG the layout is – and how many temples there are, in varying stages of repair.

One was totally Indiana Jones, with strangling figs rising out of squeezed bits of building. Ta Prohm, I think, but don’t take my word for it. After a while, the names run into each other. What stands out, for a lay tourist like me, is not the scholarly information which becomes a mass of names and dates and descriptions of friezes, it is the scale and the craftsmanship and the beauty. There is something extraordinary about an enormous 60-metre high tower, lichened and jagged, with a great big benign Buddha face looking out over a moat or a bridge or dipterocarp forest.

The temples have long pillared corridors, punctuated with the remains of vast buddhas. Usually only feet remain, where they have been lopped off and removed, but there are a few still standing, armless, shaded by yellow umbrellas, and clouded with the smoke of joss sticks. A woman prays, and ties a couple of bracelets around our wrists. We put a couple of dollars in her box – the currency here is essentially dollars, as the local numbers are enormous – thousands are worth ten dollars, and it is too much for my simple brain to compute. 

At a couple of entrances there are damaged figures with enigmatic faces pulling a fat rope on either side – symbolising the churning of the sea of milk to produce the elixir of immortality. If you can wait in the queue to climb the tower in the centre of Angkor Wat you will see a stunning bas relief showing this. All around the temple (once Hindu, then Buddhist, I believe) there are lively and beautifully executed bas reliefs of battles and tales from the Mahabharata which take one’s breath away. Delicately carved, animated, flowing and full of life and action. Don’t miss them. 

In fact, if you can, don’t miss as much of this crumbling, intimidating collection of stones and carvings as your brain and legs can manage. Over the distant centuries, it gathered into something that really is a wonder of the world. It is being restored, despite setbacks and delays and what must be depressing holes, and although it will of course never be back to its blinding just-built beauty it is so far escaping Disneyfication.

I made the mistake of going to the museum ($12) after I had visited the temples. It something you should do before, as it puts things into perspective. It has statues (many provenance unknown), and gives the history and restoration of the site. Rather too many dates and names for me, and I found the frequent films a bit too full of dramatic music and deep American voice overs, so I didn’t stay for those. 

But for someone who is more scholarly, and takes history a bit more seriously, I am sure it is just what they need. As for me, by then I was templed out – my fault, not theirs, but it was all beginning to blur. 

Not much else in Siem Reap. Hot but not unbearable in October although I imagine it’s hard to be outside in December.

Take a hat and a small towel and I was advised to have a little electric fan in my bag – sounds silly, but it helps! 

Nice polite people. A very few Khmer and French colonial buildings. We had planned to take an express boat to Battambang to see the bamboo railway which they say is not much longer for this world, and to enjoy the older architecture, but lack of tourists means lack of express boats and this year they don’t start till December.  Some good restaurants, with wine that is less expensive than in KK. We tried Greek, Khmer, Mexican, Italian and a cafe called Vibes that is much too cool for school. Don’t enter without a piercing. 

A group of locals have created a pleasant shopping village called Kandal, which has small shops (clothes, houseware, scents, leather) which are full of stuff you would like to buy, although prices are not low. A nice place to pass an hour or two but I let the side down and just bought some light trousers in the night market – plain, not covered in elephants. I remain mutton, and proud of it. 

We flew direct to Bangkok from KK, spent a few days there (Jim Thompson, followed by a very few temples and a lot of shopping), and then flew for one hour to Siem reap. Tomorrow we take a minibus for 5 hours to Phnom Penh for another three days and then fly to Bangkok and home. Not much effort (I HOPE–- I will write of the bus journey next week!) and great rewards. I’m loving it!

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