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Cambodia - 2012



January 14 - Angkor Wat - Siem Reap

We locked up Baraka and headed to Phuket Airport. Our flight was delayed but the hardworking clerk booked us onto another that got us to Bangkok in time to connect for Siem Reap. The Cashew Nut had arranged pickup, and our driver promptly delivered us to the guesthouse. Very nice - our spotless double ensuite room (air con, wifi, bfast included) is $18 a night, a preview of how far the tourist dollar stretches in Cambodia. Best of all, Alan, the proprietor, sat down with us and mapped out a plan to see the ruins, and arranged our tuk-tuk driver. Siem Reap tuk-tuks are a 3 wheeled transport, effectively a small motorcycle (moto) coupled to a canopied trailer that can carry up to 4 passengers.

Mr. Sokhoeun picks us up at the airport...

and delivers us to the comfy Cashew Nut Guesthouse.

Our first day was dedicated to orientation. We enjoyed the excellent national museum to get some perspective on the ruins, and trekked around town a bit. Day 2, we got serious, making an all-day circuit of some of the "lesser" ruins, though they seemed plenty impressive, each distinctive. Anchor Wat describes the entire park, and also a single complex within the park, which is somewhat confusing. So Angkor What? Or maybe Angkor Which?

First stop is the North gate of Angkor Thom...

with its towers of characteristic 4-faced heads.

Garuda columns flank the entry to Preah Khan...

...where we are greeted by the first of many pretty Aspara.

Trees embrace the ruins.

Dancing Aspara grace a lintel.

Trees both support and collapse the ruins.

The Aspara are celestrial beauties...

Aspara are bare-breasted ladies, slender and graceful, with lovely faces, great looping hairdos or ornately carved headresses. There are bracelets on arms and ankles, fancy belts and sashes. Feet are turned sideways. On some, the skirt looks transparent, showing dimpled knees. They may hold flowers, especially lotus, or birds. In groups, they affectionately interlock arms. Many have sweet smiles Mona Lisa could envy.

Preah Khan was the setting for the Tombraider movie.

Detailed carvings everywhere.

East Mebon has an interior moat, now dry.

Moto wagons deliver wood to market.

Day 3 we started with a great one-hour trek up a river to a small (in this dry season), somewhat ho-hum falls. Just beyond were the delights that make the hike worthwhile, The river bed was dotted with thousands of carved lingas - penis symbols of Vishnuís power, which make the river waters potent and holy. Tucked around them were carved figures, only visible in this dry season. Cool!

We hike up a river to find hundreds of lingas, penis symbols of Vishnu's power...

...some set in squares representing female genitalia.

Rock carvings are explosed...

in this low water season...

...including this reclining Buddha protected by Naga.

A sign says don't squat on the western toilet!

We treked back down to the tuk-tuk, and drove to Banteay Srei, the jewelbox ruin, known for exquisite carvings, covering every surface. The Khmer carved here in a hard pink sandstone which has survived amazingly intact eight centuries of weather and war.

We arrive at Bantay Srei...

built with fine pinkish sandstone.

Nagas protect each roof corner.

Exquisite carving looks like frosting.

Vishnu (upside dpwn) with Garuda.

Bantay Srei is the jewelbox ruin.

Doorways invite exploration...

...to more delights.

Bantay Samre

guarded by 5-headed Naga.

3 elephants represent the 3 Khmer kingdoms.

This Aspara tends a flock of geese.

Animistic figures guard the doorways.

Library building.

Lacework or stone?

Bantay Samre is surrounded by a square moat.

We stop for a palm sugar treat.

The sugar harvester is high in the treetop.

Mr. Sokhoeun shows Dave a bamboo ladder.

Branches alternate at the right heights for rungs.

Bamboo buckets capture the sugar. Handy stuff, bamboo!

Homeward bound, back to the Cashew Nut.

To learn about more recent Khmer history, we visited the nearby landmine museum. In almost 20 years of war, mines were laid in many areas, and are still being found the hard way. This museum is most sobering, and shows the heart-wrenching human cost of warfare. A mine costs about a dollar to make, and a thousand dollars to find and diffuse. The US is one of the few major nations which has not banned landmines, on the grounds they are needed to keep the Korean DMZ. Iíd like our congressmen to visit this museum and see the peglegs fashioned for children out of bamboo sections.

To round out the day we attended an evening one-man cello concert / pitch for donations. Dr. Beat (Beatocello) Richner is a Swiss national who served as a pediatrician in Cambodia until driven out by the Khmer Rouge. He was invited to return almost 20 years ago, and has since built 5 childrenís hospitals in Cambodia. The policy is that no child will be turned away. A half million children are treated annually, and the needs are huge - a legacy of Cambodiaís recent history. Itís a fantastic story, and anyone reading this, I would urge you to find out more about his work and consider contributing.

Day 4 in Siem Reap. We hit the big ones - Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, including the Bayon. When I get home to the boat Iíll post some pictures, as words canít do justice. This is why we travel - to learn about the great civilizations of the past, especially when they leave behind magnificent structures, and to learn about the culture today, the people, customs, economy, foods.

We have been to many poor countries - some more than here, though Cambodiaís story seems the saddest. Yet the people are testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Steep stairs at Bantay Kdei reminds us of Mayan ruins.

We arrive at Angkor Wat, home to hundreds of Aspara.

Monkeys play at the Stupa.

Asparas link arms with girlfriends.

Bas relief battle scenes line the arcades...

...a pictoral history of the Khmer people.

Close up.

This Aspara's skirt looks transparant.

This one has a sweet smile.

No two are alike.

Dangling earrings.

Fancy hairdo and headdress.

And a Mona Lisa smile....

Girlfriends link arms.

xxxxxxxxxxxxx

There are many hundreds...

...sideways feet.

Another sheer skirt. How do they do that in stone???

More girlfriends.

Lovely detailing on the belt.

Six celetrial beauties.

Dave finds a library...

...in a quiet corner of Angkor Wat.

This photo shows the dry interior moat.

Great looping hairdos.

Goodbye Angkor Wat...

...hope to see you again.

The causeways of the 4 Angkor Thom entrances feature a tug-of-war, where giants on one side, and heroes on the other, grab a Naga (cobra) and pull it back and forth, churning the sea of milk. This created the Aspara.

Pillars at Angkor Thom sport leaping dancers.

The walls contain 3 tiers of bas relief carvings.

But Angkor Thom is best known for several hundred faces...

...each with an enigmatic smile.

There are more than 50 towers in the Bayon.

Each tower is a head with 4 faces.

Looking through doorways you meet a face.

They are supposedly modelled after the king.

Nearby is a terrace where hundreds of elephants...

...parade in a long queue.


January 17 - Thoroughly ruined

Each day Mr Sokhoeun picks us up in his tuk-tuk and drives us wherever we want to go. Itís most comfortable, padded seat and covered roof, yet open air sides let us see the country we are passing. The last couple days we visited a couple fascinating sites - Ta Prohm was the setting for the TombRaider movie, and remote Bang Maelea is even more unrestored. There is an ongoing debate - should monumental ruins be allowed to crumble, maintained as is, or restored to what they must have looked like originally. Here at Angkor there is some of each, the restored ruins allowing masses of tourists to envision life 800 years ago. Most are being allowed to erode away. Tourists can climb on fragile carvings, or sit on Naga balustrades. The delicate sandstone carvings lose definition with each monsoon season. Trees start as seedlings on the top of walls, and eventually grow cascading roots that displace the stones into piles of rubble, or in some cases help hold the stones in their original positions.

Bang Maelea turn out to be our favorite ruin. Few tourists bother with the 90 minute ride into the country when so many major ruins are closer to town, so we almost had the place to ourselves. Bang Maelea is a fallen down shambles, built originally by the same king and at the same time as Angkor Wat. Alan had heard that the Khmer Rouge may have blown it up, or it may be that nature took over. In any case, it is a lot of fun to explore. We spent a happy morning climbing up and under and over masses of fallen stones, some with exquisite carving, aided by a local guide who led up deep into the crumbled labyrinth. The libraries and moats and walkways and galleries were originally in a similar layout to that of Angkor Wat, though on a smaller scale. Having been to Angkor first, we could figure out what was what.

There's an ongoing debate. Should monumental ruins be restored or allowed to crumble? Restoration allows access for tourists and helps the local economy. The before and after photos show the Ta Prohm causeway releveled.

And here is a toppled gallery rebuilt.

The trees invade Ta Prohm...

...setting of the Tombraider movie.

Trees support some walls...

...and topple others.

So should they be removed?

Or left in place as part of history?

Part of Ta Prohm is unrestored.

Each Aspara has her own contented expression.

Warnings are discretionary...

Inside this wedge looms overhead. Hmmm.

We come to Beng Mealea, what becomes our favorite ruin.

Nagas guard the entrance.

Beng Mealea is completely unrestored.

For some reason the tour buses skip it.

It's hard to get around...

...but treasures lurk in the rubble.

A guide leads us into the labyrinth.

The crumbling library.

Stacked stones taper in to form the gallery roofs.

No mortar ever held them.

You are free to climb anywhere.

...with only common sense to keep you safe.

Roots keep this wall together...

...and tear this entry apart.

It's a little hard to get around...

But the rewards are delightful.

Mr. Sokhoeun started the long drive back into Siem Reap, then made a surprise stop for us at what had been his Grandmotherís house, now occupied by his maternal aunt and her family. We had been fascinated by the typical Cambodian home, and he answered a lot of our questions. The 60 year old house is in need of some repair. Wood is stacked below and will be used "when the family has money to make the repairs". The Cambodian country house is one floor on stilts. Beneath the enclosed upper level is where the family spends their days, as it is cooler. There is a cooking fire, hammocks, chicken pen with 2 chickens, and room for storage of fishnet, shrimp trap baskets, mats for drying rice. Monsoon rain water from the roof is collected in huge open jars, and used for cooking and bathing. There is a well and handpump for the dry season, but water must be boiled. Behind the house was a mud-wattle shed for storing rice, mango and banana trees, a pigpen with one pig, an ox-cart, the family cow, a pond, a rice paddy and vegetable garden. The house has no plumbing or electricity. Cooking is done with wood fire, as cooking gas costs money. The family sells a little rice and corn if they have surplus. 3 generations live in the house.

The family has almost no cash income. We were impressed that the small farm can produce such a variety of foods. Our driver knocked down a couple coconuts and opened them for us to enjoy a drink. Cambodians have little, but know how to be content. Another lesson for us.

Cambodians get around by bicycle, or if they have income, moto (small motorcycle). Almost anything can be transported by moto, stacks of mattresses, piles of lumber, bicycles, and entire families (7 is the max weíve seen). Our favorite was 3 large live pigs headed to market, upside down with trotters waving, lashed athwart the moto seat behind the driver.

We are fascinated by the Cambodian country home.

Mr. Sokhoeun takes us to visit his Auntie's farm.

During the day the family is downstairs...

...where fish traps and mats are stored.

The kitchen is up a few steps.

Big urns catch rainwater.

A mud-wattle shed stores rice.

The family cart.

Chicken droppings are collected for the veg garden.

We were impressed that the farm was so complete, offering such a variety of foods. We were equally impressed with how fragile this family is, dependent upon good weather, good health and a good harvest.

My last day in Siem Reap, I return to the Bayon...

Giants line the causeway in their perpetual tug of war.

You can visit by elephant if you like.

It's a last chance to see Aspara...

frolicking on the columns.

Elephants trunk wrestle...

The bas reliefs are cartoon strips of Khmer life.

This gator has grabbed a man.

Pig in the cookpot.

Yet one more pretty Aspara.

And a leaping dancer.

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