Today we’re the Tomb Raiders. Sue’s arranged for our driver Saphie to spirit us to spiritual Angor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. The smooth, wide approach roads are built for volume, which big Chinese tour buses deliver obligingly. Past the monumental ticket office we enter a garbage free zone… a KAC (Keep Angkor Clean) billboard campaign supports the cause. The arrow-straight approach boulevard pays homage to the symmetry of Angkor Wat – its walls align perfectly to true North, South, East and West. The ancient Khmers knew a thing or two about orienteering.
They knew architecture and construction too… the scale, symmetry and longevity of Angkor Wat is astounding. Conceived as the earthly representation of Hindu’s heavenly Mt. Meru, Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples were built a millennium ago at the ebb of Europe’s dark ages. It must have been a large society in its day; our guide represents that the kings harnessed a million citizens to quarry, transport, assemble and carve the temples. In the dry seasons they cut rock from a sandstone plateau 40 miles away, dug canals, carved and assembled; in the wet seasons they floated those 500 lb blocks from the quarry to the construction site. Holes still visible in the stones accommodated anchors for transport and placement; lacking cement they carved tongue and groove joints.
The stonework is phenomenal, and though much has been pillaged or vandalized, well preserved relics remain. Many of the carvings present excerpts from the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Our boys took particular interest in carvings depicting how Vishnu convinced the demons, demigods and a snake to create a giant Cuisinart and churn of the Ocean of Milk (no broken blades!), the faces at The Bayon in the massive Angor Thom complex, and the fecund jungle’s reclamation of Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple.
Alas this exquisite craft and knowledge was obliterated in just four years by the Khmer’s
own descendants, the Khmer Rouge. Bullet holes in the exterior of Angkor Wat’s walls hint at Cambodia’s tragic wounds, which are evidenced everywhere outside. Here there are few developments over 30 years old. Most people are younger too, because during their radical and failed social experiment the Khmer Rouge slaughtered and starved the educated, the artistic, and ultimately a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Vietnamese occupation and Civil war ensued, and only recently has Cambodia returned to a more civil society.
Today those atrocities seem far removed, and it’s all sunshine, selfie sticks and jolly Chinese tourists. It seems Siem Reap is reaping sown seeds.
Thanks to Sue’s good planning, we have 5 days of good weather and comfortable accommodations in this charming tourist haven, so we have time to relax, reflect, tour, play, read, and of course time to dine (we’re traveling with Sue, after all…). The Landmine and War Museums provides a somber reminder of war’s lingering costs; the former provides a rehabilitative and training facility for children injured or orphaned by land mines and UXO’s; the latter funds care for war’s injured. One night we attend the excellent Phare Circus, which provides training and skill development for hundreds of poor village children. Scooter rentals, mini golf, fish foot feeding, massages, arts and crafts… It’s easy to feel good about spending time and money here as prices are low and cash flows to those who need… there are no one-percenters or mythical Trumpian trickle-down benevolence in Cambodia.